Cleanup at old H.K. Porter site in Huntington among the less worrying ones for EPA coordinator

Jorge Gonzalez pumps liquids from a benzene storage tank on the site of the H.K. Porter/Friction Materials site on Thursday, Aug. 10. This particular tank contained only rainwater and rust, but the EPA team will cut holes in it so it can’t be used.
Jorge Gonzalez pumps liquids from a benzene storage tank on the site of the H.K. Porter/Friction Materials site on Thursday, Aug. 10. This particular tank contained only rainwater and rust, but the EPA team will cut holes in it so it can’t be used. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

The old H.K. Porter/-Friction Materials is full of stuff that shouldn’t be left laying around.

There’s lead and asbestos, raw materials used in the manufacture of linings for automotive parts including brakes and clutches; and benzene, a solvent used in the manufacturing process.

All are known or suspected carcinogens, but all are still used — under strict regulations — in manufacturing today.

The abandoned plant on Huntington’s east side is on the less worrying side of the cleanups that Environmental Protection Agency on-scene coordinator Andy Maguire has worked on.

“There’s no fire, there’s no oil in the river that needs 24-7 attention,” he said during a walk-through of the site on Thursday, Aug. 10.

“The benzene tanks are fairly well buttoned up, but there’s a couple that are concerning,” Maguire says. “Beyond that, it’s a pretty standard type of site for us.”

“Except for the trespassers, not a lot is evolving or changing on site,” says Bryn Keplinger, director of the community development and redevel- opment for the City of Huntington.

It’s the trespassers that worry both Keplinger and Maguire.

“People shouldn’t be going on site and potentially exposing themselves,” Maguire says.

But fresh graffiti and broken windows give evidence that trespassers had been active there, at least until the EPA arrived on site July 17.

Evidence of trespassers was one reason the EPA classified the cleanup of the abandoned factory as a “time critical removal action,” Maguire says.

The EPA had first assessed the site in 2002, but a private individual had purchased the property in a bankruptcy sale at that time and said he planned to take care of it.

What he did, Keplinger said, was to remove much of the metal to sell for scrap, even hauling some of the huge benzene storage tanks outside the building and cutting them up, and hauled in hazardous materials from other sites.

After unpaid taxes mounted up, the city took over ownership of the property in 2014. A new round of IDEM and EPA assessments began, eventually leading to the EPA’s arrival in Huntington last month.

The EPA cleanup is being paid for with federal Superfund money, but the EPA team is dealing only with the most pressing problems — such as removing loose asbestos and pumping benzene out of the storage tanks, Maguire says.

The lead, benzene, asbestos and what Maguire calls “other random corrosives” will eventually be sent to approved landfills outside Huntington Cou-nty.
“We’re cleaning up the immediate hazards on site,” Maguire says.

Maguire says he welcomes information from former employees and local residents about where contaminants may have been disposed of on the site. Anyone with that type of information should find Maguire or another member of the team at the EPA trailer parked in front of the property on Sabine Street.

Some residents had expressed concerns that the work being done will release contaminants into the air, which could cause problems for those with breathing problems. Maguire says the team is taking dust suppression measures and monitoring the air to keep that from happening.

“We’re stirring stuff up, but we’re containing it,” he says.

The EPA team is also testing soil around the building and so far hasn’t found much to be concerned about.

“It’s preliminary, but we’re not finding any lead,” Maguire says.

The team will expand the perimeter of the soil testing area as long as it’s finding contaminants and may eventually need to do some testing on private property.

“We’d need cooperation from residents, but I don’t know if we’ll need to do that,” he says.

There’s a possibility that gases may have gone down through the rocky subsurface of the soil and settled into groundwater, which may have carried those gases into basements of nearby homes. The EPA team may ask some residents to conduct tests on their properties for those gases, Maguire says.

The groundwater is not drinking water, Maguire and Keplinger emphasized, so there is no concern for the safety of the water supply in that neighborhood.
Neighbors shouldn’t expect to see the two buildings remaining on the site — the main factory building, and a mixing and solvent recovery building — to go down when the EPA team leaves.

“When they’re done, there will still be a lot of work to be done by the city,” Keplinger says.

The goal, Keplinger says, is to eventually find a new use for that property. What that use would be depends on what kind of contaminants are found and where they are, as well as available funding.

“It’s probably going to be another 10-year project,” Keplinger says.