A federal cleanup effort has stretched into the new year as officials continue their assessment and necessary removal of hazardous materials at a former titanium mining and refining site in Piney River.
In August, the Environmental Protection Agency began overseeing the removal of a dirt mound by the potentially responsible party at the U.S. Titanium Superfund Site located next to the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail found off Virginia 151, a public notice released by the agency in August states.
Myles Bartos, EPA on-scene coordinator for the Piney River site, described the project to remove hazardous substances as a “calculated effort” to ensure the continued protection of the public.
“It’s not a ‘run-out-the-door emergency’ by any means, but there are some areas of this pile that have some material that exceed what we believe should be left,” Bartos said.
A .4-acre debris pile, known as a “drum disposal mound,” was identified on the site in 2016. An evaluation of the site performed by the EPA and the potentially responsible party found portions of the mound needed to be removed for long-term protection, according to the notice.
Bartos estimated the dirt mound, which was found to have elevated levels of various metals, chemical substances and what appeared to be drum carcasses, to be about 8 feet tall at it’s highest point. While there were only a few areas that Bartos said required action, the potentially responsible party — Solvay — opted to clean up the entire mound.
“The concentrations on all these were low,” Bartos said of the soil. “The presence was there, but it wasn’t like there were high, high concentrations everywhere, so the risk was minimal.”
Bartos said some initial cleanup was performed after the pile was discovered in 2016 and an Administrative Order on Consent was signed in April 2020 to ensure “the work is done safely, efficiently, and effectively,” according to the notice.
The former U.S. Titanium site turned EPA Superfund cleanup was once a local centerpiece of an environmental and political nightmare.
The approximately 50-acre site used to be occupied by an American Cyanamid Company plant, which refined titanium ore and manufactured titanium dioxide for paint pigments from 1931 to 1971, the EPA’s website states.
In September 1983, the site officially joined the National Priorities List of the most serious uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites requiring long-term remedial action, making it eligible for federal cleanup funds, according to the website.
Bartos also noted the mere presence of these substances doesn’t necessarily equate to action needing to be taken, but the circumstances in which those substances exist — in this case, the mound being located on a floodplain and its proximity to a public trail — also are taken into account.
Work began in August to make the site more accessible and, about 116 truckloads later, physically remove the mound from the area. From there, materials were transferred to a staging area and separated to later be disposed of appropriately.
Bartos said a vast majority is going to a regular landfill.
With the mound removed, the area has been sectioned off in a grid and officials continue to sample portions of that grid to ensure soil makeup is below standards. Bartos said additional material will be removed in those sections that are still exceeding standards.
Bartos said the area has been enclosed with a chain-link fence to restrict access and reduce risk to the public. He expects the project to be complete early this year but it potentially could be prolonged should additional work need to be done.
Officials with the project have worked closely with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in addition to other organizations, like the Nelson County Parks and Recreation Department to coordinate outreach to the community.
“We are there to ensure the public remains protected and the [potentially responsible party] is doing the job they should and they are,” Bartos said. “Our main priority is the worker’s protection and the public’s protection and they have been protected because of these efforts.”