Originally created 07/12/97

Officials to examine Atlanta Gas Light site for health hazards



Federal authorities plan to take a closer look at potential health impacts of coal tar contamination surrounding a defunct gas manufacturing plant in Augusta.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry "has determined there is a reasonable basis" for conducting additional activities in response to community concerns about the Atlanta Gas Light site.

On Friday, the agency notified Duncan Wheale, who represents residents in a property damage lawsuit against the company, that the agency will release a health assessment this fall explaining its findings to the community.

Atlanta Gas Light's gas factory at Eighth Street and Walton Way, which closed 40 years ago, contains toxic chemicals linked to gas manufacturing there from 1852 to 1955. The company is removing the materials.

Although health problems are not a basis for the lawsuit against Atlanta Gas, residents have voiced concerns about whether exposure to decades of coal tar in the area can cause health problems.

The agency shares that concern.

The agency "believes the community's health concerns and the available environmental data regarding the site warrant further review," wrote Robert Williams, ATSDR's health assessment director, in a letter to Mr. Wheale.

Atlanta Gas officials point out that the company is undertaking a thorough and costly cleanup of the area, but is unaware of any health problems.

"We have conducted extensive testing at the site since 1991, and we are not aware of any harmful health effects attributable to the environmental impacts of the operation of the plant," the company said in a written response to an inquiry Friday from The Augusta Chronicle. "We will assist ATSDR in any way we can."

In addition to releasing its findings based on evaluation of environmental data, ATSDR also will determine whether residents in the inner-city community should undergo health education programs to help them understand the possible risks associated with living near the site.

One adjacent landowner to the site, Trinity CME Church, was awarded $3 million in replacement costs and damages associated with the contamination. Atlanta Gas is appealing, and has counter-offered about $400,000.

Oral arguments in that appeal were heard this week in Jefferson, Ga., before Superior Court Judge Penn McWhorter, who was appointed to preside over the case after Augusta-area judges disqualified themselves because they own property in the affected areas.