At a Feb. 12 meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors, a lawyer and consultants representing Whirlpool said possible cancer-causing chemicals in the ground around its former Fort Smith manufacturing facility had not spread. But the Whirlpool representatives were notified by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) 20 days prior to that presentation that trichloroethylene (TCE) was not necessarily contained.
Asked by Director Pam Weber what the risk was of contamination spreading at that meeting, Greg Gillespie of ENVIRON International Corp., a company hired by Whirlpool to deal with the contamination, made a very direct claim.
"(It's) minimal, because it has not moved," he said.
But according to a Jan. 22 letter to Whirlpool's Robert Karwowski, director of Environmental, Health and Safety, the ADEQ said that claim was not necessarily accurate.
"The information provided in the RRMP and previously submitted progress reports indicate that the concentration of TCE in the off-site monitoring wells exceeds the Maximum Contaminant Levels as well as the Regional Screening Levels and the contamination plume appears to still be moving," said ADEQ engineer Mostafa Mehran.
When contacted today (Feb. 28) regarding the letter from ADEQ, Gillespie said he would have no comment.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss that," he said. "I have to ask that you contact Whirlpool directly for that."
When asked if he would attend the Board's March 5 meeting to address the matter before a vote is taken on the proposed well ban, Gillespie said he would attend.
"I will be there and if asked, (the letter) will be addressed," he said.
City Director Keith Lau said the information presented by Gillespie and Whirlpool's Fayetteville-based attorney Robert Jones III to the Board on Feb. 12 was a lie.
"I'm not going to trust anything that they say because of this," Lau said.
Lau said the letter having been sent to Whirlpool on Jan. 22 was troubling to him since 20 days later, Gillespie and Jones made their presentation to the Board claiming the contamination had not moved and banning well drilling in the area would be the best solution.
"They tried to present to the Board that (a groundwater drilling ban) was going to solve the problem," he said. "So I have a problem with that whole thing."
During the Board's study session, Jones said Whirlpool had done everything it could to clean up the contamination and keep it from spreading.
But as Lau alluded to, the ADEQ suggested two additional remedies in order to control the problem — evaluate using a trench on-site as a groundwater control and evaluate using a vertical barrier as a remedy for on-site soil.
Neither recommendation was mentioned during the Feb. 12 Board meeting.
Lau said if the decision was his, the vote for the groundwater well ban would not even happen.
"They left us with an abandoned manufacturing facility, took production out of the country and left us with a problem," he said. "I can't see the Board of Directors voting for this. If it were me, I would pull it off the agenda. It would not even be an option."
City Administrator Ray Gosack took a softer tone regarding information Whirlpool presented to the Board.
"I'm not sure I agree that it was completely contrary to everything presented at the meeting," he said. "Whirlpool presented a lot of information. We've not heard Whirlpool's response (to this letter)."
Gosack said it was not the city's job to put in to place environmental policy or enforce environmental policy on Whirlpool. He said the city's job is simply to protect citizens from potential harm.
"Our interest is protecting the public's health and safety," he added.
That was exactly why Lau said the ban on groundwater drilling may not be enough to protect citizens.
"(TCE) is a known carcinogen. That's all you have to know," he said.
When reached for comment, Mehran said he was not able to speak to the press.
A call to Whirlpool's media relations department in Benton Harbor, Mich., was not returned.
Calls to Jones were not returned. He did respond to a text message, saying, "Please call 269 923 7405." The number was Whirlpool's media relations number.
Jones did not respond to a second text specifically asking for a comment on the ADEQ letter.
Link here for a PDF of the ADEQ letter.