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"Close the Pit" campaign protests Georgia Pacific chemical disposal

Ohio Citizen Action wants a Columbus plant to stop emptying waste water containing chemicals into a lagoon. The organization's "Close the Pit" campaign is directed toward the Georgia Pacific resins plant on Watkins Road in south Columbus .the same plant where a 1997 explosion killed a worker and partially destroyed the facility.

1100 yards signs that say Close the Pit have popped up on lawns across Franklin County. One of them is near Mary Hawkins' home on Watkins Road not far from Georgia Pacific. Hawkins has lived in the same house for 60 years, long before the plant was built in 1970.

"I'm too old to pick up and move unless I go to a nursing home, Hawkins says. "And this is my home; this is where my husband brought me. This is where we had our children; raised em, and it's sad, it's sad."

Hawkins is one of a few residents in the area whose water comes from her own private well. So she's concerned that phenol, methanol and formaldehyde from the plant's lagoon might be polluting her water. Small amounts of phenol were found in 1992, though the source was never determined. The Ohio EPA's Craig Butler says testing since then has shown no sign of pollution.

"There is no phenol in those wells and no concern of chemical contamination in those wells," Butler says.

Georgia Pacific treats millions of gallons of chemically tainted wastewater with microbes that eat the chemicals, they say, before it's discharged into the city's sewer system. Plant manager David Mason calls the almost 30-year-old lagoon a bio-pond.

"Our bio-pond is no different from a Franklin County waste water treatment facility or any other sanitary treatment facility," Mason says. "It's regulated by the City of Columbus waste water treatment. Wells around the pond are monitored annually. And so it's operated in compliance.

But Ohio Citizen Action says it's a toxic pit that uses outdated technology. Even though recent tests have found no pollutants in nearby wells, the group's Leontein Kennedy says it's an accident waiting to happen.

"It's good news that we didn't find anything at this point," Kennedy says. But because those people are on well water you never know what might happen in the future."

Kennedy says there's also concern that chemical pollution might be contaminating the air.

"It's a resin plant, a chemical plant, Kennedy says. "And they dump three chemicals into this pit which is not lined and it's not enclosed. So the chemicals have a chance to pollute the air. Well they go up in the air."

Thousands of residents live nearby in the Southfield neighborhood. A class-action lawsuit brought against Georgia Pacific after the 1997 explosion was settled for $22 million. In 2005 a court-ordered study concluded that the pond was in fact a source of air pollution. But the Ohio EPA's Craig Butler describes the amount as 'de minimis.'

"It is our determination after looking at all the data that it is an insignificant source of air pollution to the neighborhood as well as how it impacts permit status for the facility," Butler says.

Georgia Pacific plant manager David Mason maintains that the company is a good neighbor and is operating in accordance to regulations.

"We did some extenuating tests on the pond with air emissions in accordance with Ohio EPA and still found it's in compliance and there are no air emissions coming from the pond.

Mason says the resins plant is state-of-the-art and is one of the few plants in Ohio that's received U.S. EPA recognition.

"We want to make sure that we're operating safe and we're environmentally responsible," Mason says. "And we're doing everything that we can do even with the bio-pond. Nothing can happen...I won't say 'nothing' but we monitor the pond every year. We take samples every year and after 30 years there are no signs of leakage or contamination."

Just up the road, Mary Hawkins tends to the flowers in her garden as huge trucks kick up dust on Watkins Road. Now she says she wonders how the plant has affected her health. Back when it was planned, she says she thought it was a good idea.

"It will be one big factory," Hawkins says. "And it will take the whole area. So I agreed with it. Oh, Lordy, never agree with nothin' like that no more. And this is what we got."