Originally created 05/25/04

Report says EPA knew of bad well



ATHENS, Ga. - State and federal environmental officials knew of spreading groundwater contamination from an Athens petroleum facility years before an Athens boy's leukemia prompted chemical tests of nearby groundwater, according to a recently completed report on the site.

The boy's mother, Jill McElheney, believes environmental officials didn't do enough to inform the area's residents of the possible risk.

Ms. McElheney obtained the report in April from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after submitting a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

The report documents several spills and releases of petroleum products dating back to the 1980s at a petroleum-distribution terminal next to the mobile-home park where the McElheneys lived at the time.

But not until 1999, after then-4-year-old Jarrett McElheney was diagnosed with leukemia, was the water checked in a mobile-home park's well.

Chemical analysis of the well water showed high levels of benzene and other compounds linked to cancer, and state officials immediately ordered the well shut down. The mobile homes in the park were then connected to the municipal water system.

Five years later, Jarrett's leukemia remains in remission, but Ms. McElheney is trying to find out why the environmental agencies' investigations stayed confined to the petroleum storage site.

The report, called a "final expanded site inspection report," was the basis of the EPA's decision in December not to place the site on the "National Priorities List" of toxic sites that pose a significant threat to human health or the environment. The site remains on a similar state list.

Ms. McElheney was irked by the 2003 report's summary of a 1992 investigation after a spill at the facility.

For the 1992 report, scientists with a private company hired by the EPA visited the terminal. They concluded that, based on data from reports about previous spills, the spilled benzene leaking into the groundwater wasn't likely to seep into drinking wells used by many people.

The report recommended monitoring of existing test wells for contamination.

That indicates the people who lived in the mobile-home park didn't matter, Ms. McElheney believes.

"My bottom line is, they knew what was going on, they knew there was risk involved, but they didn't inform anybody," she said.

It's possible environmental officials might not have known of the well in 1992. Carolyn Callihan, of EPA Region IV, said Friday she couldn't say anything without going back and looking at the 1992 report.

When Jarrett's cancer was diagnosed in late 1998, state health officials said the well fell under state regulations for "public" water systems, which requires a state permit and regular water testing.

The owners of the mobile-home park, including Jarrett's grandfather, had not applied for a permit.