Residents concerned after lead and arsenic discovered near homes

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS/AP) - There are a lot of questions about elevated levels of arsenic and lead found at an asphalt plant in Columbia's Rosewood neighborhood.

The Seaco Plant was sold to a Virginia-based company last month, when soils testing started contaminants were found.

Naturally, residents are concerned about their health, how long these toxins have been in the ground and how far they reach.

A fence separates Seaco from this neighborhood. But before there was a Seaco and even a neighborhood, we're told this property housed a fertilizer plant. DHEC officials believe that plant is responsible for the arsenic contamination that was found. At this point they don't know how far the toxins extend but say at least 20 homes may be affected.

"At the turn of the century there was a fertilizer plant not exactly on the same site, but it overlaps the asphalt plant's site," said DHEC Director, Catherine Templeton.

If you look at the attached map, you can see the overlap and some of the property which now invades a neighborhood.

Templeton says several samples tested positive for high levels of arsenic and lead. Now they need to test the homes.

"Until we know the levels of lead, until we know the levels of arsenic, until we have a really good grasp on how far this reaches we don't know what the effects will be," said Templeton.

So, why weren't the toxins found earlier?

"We don't get to go around and poke holes in the ground of private homeowners because of the turnover of the asphalt plant they found arsenic there," said Templeton.

Templeton says DHEC was notified about the arsenic in June, but it took weeks to trace the possible source back to the old fertilizer plant, which was on an 8.6 acre site near South Edisto Avenue.

"That whole area is such a legacy, industrial site," said Templeton. "You've got oil contaminants; you've got all kinds of things in that whole stretch of land."

The residents want answers, so the Rosewood Community Council has hired the Harpootlian Law Firm.

"At first they knew nothing," said Attorney Graham Newman. "DHEC has been working on this site for 20 years no one was ever told what was going on site. Then they learned there was arsenic in the drinking water beneath the site. Now just today we're learning there's lead in the groundwater beneath the site. What are we going to learn tomorrow? We really have no idea."

"Arsenic and lead are the most identifiable contaminants, but there are also other petroleum-based products that are in the ground we don't know what they mean or what they've done or potentially can do to our families," said Rosewood Community Council President, Jenna Stephens.

Director Templeton says she understands the concern, but insists the public water system is safe.

"This land has been this way for over a hundred years," said Templeton. "This is not something tonight that's going to cause any emergent situation but we will be out there in the morning."

"If we find out that a private corporation polluted the environment or threatened the health of the community, they will pay," said Newman.

Before cleanup can begin, obviously more testing has to happen.

DHEC's team including toxicologists will be going door-to-door Wednesday to explain exactly what's happening and hoping to test their soil.

The new owners of the SEACO plant issued this statement:

In May of 2012, while working through the process to buy the SEACO plant in Columbia, SC, Associated Asphalt discovered arsenic at the plant site. Associated Asphalt promptly notified regulators with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).  On June 1, 2012 Associated Asphalt purchased SEACO.

Neither arsenic nor lead are used in the production of asphalt, nor are they a byproduct of the process.

Being a good corporate citizen has been a core value of our company since 1948 and we are committed to being a good neighbor to the residents of the Rosewood Community. 

Sam Cannon

Associated Asphalt

Vice President Operations