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Crews working on the cleanup of the Freedom Industries site on the Elk River got a surprise last week, when they found that what was thought to be a rock fill turned out to be buried construction debris, state Department of Environmental Protection officials said.

Dave Long, project manager for DEP’s Office of Environmental Remediation, said that workers from the consulting firm Core Environmental Services discovered what had been referred to as a “cobble fill” was actually full of construction debris consisting mostly of old bricks.

DEP officials, Freedom and Freedom’s contractor were already investigating the fill area, because of concerns that unconsolidated rocks would make it easy for contaminated water to flow underground and deeper down into the soil at the site of the January 2014 chemical spill that contaminated the region’s drinking water supply. The construction debris could be an even more likely “path of least resistance” for contamination, Long said.

“It’s really kind of scary that they would have constructed large chemical tanks on top of something like that,” Long said Friday.

Long said that officials are confident that the construction debris fill has been at the site for “some time,” dating back beyond Freedom taking over the site in 2001 to when the facility was a bulk petroleum facility owned by Pennzoil and Quaker State.

It’s too soon to say for sure what impact the construction fill’s discovery will have on the timeline, extent or expense of the Freedom site cleanup. Officials are waiting for results of testing conducted in the fill area for MCHM and PPH -- chemicals from the Freedom spill -- and for petroleum substances related to the facility’s former use.

Still, DEP officials and Freedom Industries are negotiating changes to their cleanup agreement that would likely push back some of the project’s timelines by several months. DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said that agency is hoping to avoid any significant delays in the project’s current end-date of mid-2016.

Workers discovered the construction debris as part of an expanded site investigation being conducted by Core Environmental, which was hired as Freedom’s new environmental consultant after DEP and Freedom split with the previous firm, ARCADIS, over how the company would be paid. Lawyers for ARCADIS had also complained that it was not clear how much site testing DEP would require or what sort of “final remedy” would be mandated by state regulators.

The testing of the fill area by Core Environmental included digging 13 test pits, compared to one that was proposed in an earlier plan from ARCADIS, Long said.

DEP officials had given Core Environmental “verbal approval” last Tuesday to begin its excavation and testing and then confirmed that approval in a letter on Thursday.

Long said the construction material was found starting two- to four-feet down and was up to eight feet deep in some places. While it was not found directly under the MCHM tank that leaked in January 2014, some of the material was located under other tanks at the site. Long said the construction fill was not what would be considered consolidated material.

“When they were digging into it with a backhoe, it was collapsing as fast as they could dig it out,” Long said.

While Freedom’s cleanup of the Elk River Terminal is being performed under a DEP program created by the 1997 Voluntary Remediation and Redevelopment Act, the company’s cleanup is not strictly voluntary.

In the weeks after the spill, DEP officials issued a series of enforcement orders that required Freedom to clean up the site, including a mandate that all MCHM chemical contamination be removed. Freedom sought entry into the DEP Voluntary Remediation Program in the hopes that the risk-based program would ease the requirements for what level of contamination could be left buried at the facility. But DEP officials have said that they will require a cleanup that eliminates any risk of contamination from the site making its way into the region’s drinking water.

As part of a settlement with Freedom Industries, the company and its former owners have earmarked about $2.5 million toward remediating the site. While no final cleanup plan for the site exists yet, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has said that his staff’s years of experience on remediation projects indicates that the $2.5 million will be more than enough for the Freedom site.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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