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After more than four decades, Louisville is clearing out ‘Gully of the Drums’ • Kentucky Lantern

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization covering climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.

LOUISVILLE – City officials are taking their first public step toward cleaning up hazardous waste at a popular park after a local graduate student last year called out a 45-year comedy of errors by federal, state and local agencies that allowed the dumped barrels and chemicals to escape remediation.

Louisville parks officials have a $68,000 plan to dig trenches and take soil samples in an area called “Gully of the Drums.” The campsite is located approximately 220 meters from the infamous “Valley of the Drums,” where approximately 17,000 barrels of hazardous waste were discovered in the late 1970s on farmland 17 miles south of downtown Louisville, which were removed in one of the first major federal Superfund cleanups in the United States.

The EPA did not clean up the much smaller Gully of the Drums at the time. At least twice since then — after the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Valley of the Drums cleanup a success — Kentucky environmental regulators and EPA officials found that contaminants remained in the soil above the health and safety levels that would normally trigger remediation would lead.

But at the site, which is in a public forest preserved as a tribute to area veterans, as many as 40 to 45 barrels remain in the forest, releasing the remaining toxic contents into the ground. The new survey, if approved by the Louisville Metro Council, will include taking soil samples near the visible drums and digging trenches to see if there are any invisible barrels or containers of toxic waste buried there as well. Then the soil is tested to see if that area has hazardous waste.

The Louisville Metro Council received the proposed site assessment plan Thursday evening and referred it to the parks commission for review next week. That action alone indicates that the city government is beginning to take responsibility for a situation recently exposed by Sam Satterley, an Iraq War veteran and former graduate student at the University of Louisville.

In December Satterley completed research at both landfills as part of a diploma she obtained in sustainability. Her dissertation revealed previously untold stories about the origins of the Gully of the Drums – and how it shares a connection with the Valley of the Drums.

“When I saw it (the site assessment plan) on the city council agenda, I was completely overwhelmed,” said Satterly, who has described decades of missed opportunities to clean up the Gully of the Drums.

She noted that the company that was about to win the contract, Shield Environmental, had conducted a similar site assessment more than a decade ago and completed it in 2011, and found contamination beyond what would normally be would lead to a clean-up operation.

The Drums Trench in Jefferson Memorial Forest. (Courtesy of Sam Satterly)

But at the time, state environmental regulators who commissioned that study dropped the ball and did not require a cleanup.

“I want to make sure this doesn’t fall through the cracks again,” Satterley said Friday.

Officials with the parks department and in Mayor Craig Greenberg’s office did not respond to several requests for comment Friday.

But in their request for funding, city officials said Shield’s services are “critically important” to the environment and that “a remediation plan or cleanup of hazardous materials will be the likely outcome.”

For Louisville Metro Councilman Dan Seum Jr., whose district includes the memorial forest, cleaning up the hazardous waste is important to make visitors feel safe at a time when he and other officials are turning the park into a regional destination.

“I believe we will get a good investigation and good advice” from Shield, Seum said Friday. “I want to make sure (the forest) is safe for the environment.”

Seum said he also wants to ensure that the environmental investigation is transparent and that the results are made public.

He said the language in the company’s proposal about the need for a “non-disclosure agreement” or “confidentiality agreement” to “ensure that any information found regarding waste materials on site is not shared” beyond the project parties. ‘I’m going to investigate that. We want it to be open.”

Greenberg, the mayor of Louisville, has been previously criticized for his government’s use of non-disclosure agreements.

Images of Valley of the Drums, along with the terrifying revelation of chemical plant dumping in Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, led Congress in 1980 to pass the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund . The law charged the chemical and petroleum industries to pay for the program and gave EPA authority to respond directly to toxic dumps that threatened the public or the environment, and then recover cleanup costs from the “responsible parties.”

Despite the cleanup of the Valley of the Drums, the dump in what would become Jefferson Memorial Forest was never cleaned up.

There are likely many such smaller landfills across the country, like the one in Jefferson Memorial Forest, which “went off the charts and faded into oblivion” when EPA and states were inundated with reports of toxic landfills needing to be closed in the 1980s. investigated, Louisville said. environmental attorney Tom FitzGerald, who has investigated legal issues related to the site.

In his 2011 report, Shield noted that barrels and other containers were scattered across 300 feet of the forest floor. By then the liquid waste was gone, but testing of the soil near the drums found pesticides, PCBs and a mix of heavy metals at levels higher than what would normally require agency action.

As recently as 2016, state environmental regulators had described Gully of the Drums as “an imminent threat to human health and the environment.”

One of Satterley’s professors, Lauren Heberle, chair of sociology and an expert on the Superfund cleanup, said she is “very encouraged” that Louisville is on the verge of completing the original Shield environmental assessment from nearly fifteen years ago. to complete.

But she said the plan, which does not require new testing of groundwater or a nearby creek, “seems like a missed opportunity.” She also questioned why the scope of the project does not include looking for the presence of PFAS or other toxic substances that they may not have previously tested for.

The proposal stated that the previous investigation did not find contamination in the groundwater or creek at a level that warranted action. The new proposal assumes nothing has changed dramatically since 2011, Heberle said.

Heberle credited Satterley’s research and public presentation as the impetus for action. “I am pleased to see that the Louisville Metro Government is taking responsibility for completing the assessment and I hope that they will also follow up on the remediation in a manner that clears the site of any remaining toxic or hazardous materials .”