In a month, EPA officials say, residents may know whether the soil in those ditches contains lead or polychlorinated biphenols, also known as PCBs.
Over the past decade, much has been done to clear west Anniston lawns and parks of toxic contaminants left over from decades of heavy industry in the city. But until this week, no one had checked the ditches that border the lawns where contaminated soil has been removed.
County officials say they began asking the environmental agency to test the ditches years ago, when polluted parcels in west Anniston were first dug up and replaced with fresh soil.
Many of their requests were made verbally and were well received, but for years no action was taken, said Calhoun County Commissioner Eli Henderson.
“They kept saying it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen and it never happened,” Henderson said. “We’ve had to push them hard.”
Some longtime west Anniston residents said Tuesday that they were unaware the ditches had gone unchecked for so long.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” said Vaye Bentley, who grew up in west Anniston. “If it’s in the yard, it’s going to be in the ditches.”
In recent months, negotiations began to move more quickly toward the county’s request. County officials and the EPA exchanged a series of letters.
“The EPA has been in communication with the county in trying to discuss and determine where testing should occur in the west Anniston area,” said Dawn Harris-Young, EPA spokeswoman.
Calhoun County Engineer Brian Rosenbalm wrote in September 2011to request that the EPA do widespread testing in ditches throughout four zones in west Anniston. Those zones were designated by the EPA.
For years the ditches in west Anniston, which would have been maintained by the Calhoun County Highway Department, have gone unkempt. Rosenbalm, who heads the highway department, said he and previous county engineers could not maintain the ditches because they did not want to churn contaminants that might have settled there.
But some were concerned that leaving the ditches unmowed could also create a contamination problem.
In a county memo dated Dec. 8, 2011 Calhoun County environmental enforcement officer David Pirritano wrote that the west side of Anniston is prone to flooding, in part, because the ditches are crowded with vegetative debris.
“If the right-of-way storm water ditches are contaminated and flooding takes place there is the possibility that sites … could be recontaminated as well as clean properties that didn’t contain pollutions to begin with,” the memo states.
Yucheng Feng, a professor of environmental soil microbiology at Auburn University, said the potential for recontamination with PCBs would depend on several variables. If the concentration of the PCBs is high enough, recontamination could occur, but PCBs are not easily dissolved in water and are more likely to cling to sediment and soil, she added.
The likelihood that PCBs remain in the unkempt ditches, however, is strong, Feng said.
“They don’t move much,” Feng said. “Based on what I’ve read, I think there is quite a bit of PCBs in those ditches.”
According to correspondence between the county and the federal agency, the two entities continued communicating through the spring months. In response to a letter sent to the EPA in May, the agency wrote to Henderson, then the commission’s chairman.
The letter states that the EPA "does not intend to leave the County with the responsibility of managing contaminated materials associated with the Anniston Lead or PCB Sites.”
The letter also states that if lead or PCBs are found in the ditches at concentrations deemed to be harmful to human health, the soil will be removed.
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter@LJohnson_Star.