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What lurks underground?

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By The Staff

Beneath the ground hides an infrastructure of wires, pipes, tunnels and concrete that makes modern life possible. But for Owenton, the ground hides something much more dangerous –– oil. An environmental study recently surfaced that shows the existence of “severe” petroleum contamination below a former downtown gas station. It’s believed the petroleum leaked from underground storage tanks buried there in the 1980s and ’90s. Reports of the contamination emerged earlier this month after county officials wanted to build a new judicial center on the tainted site, located at 214 W. Seminary St. Officials were forced to abandon that plan after finding the property contained unacceptable levels of hydrocarbon, according to inspections performed by the Kentucky Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet. Those inspections also revealed high concentrations of the agents Benzene –– a highly flammable carcinogen –– and Toluene ––a solvent commonly used for paint thinners. Both compounds occur naturally in low levels of crude oil and it’s suspected the reagents leaked into the ground after a tank at the former gas station failed. When tanks fail, there is a potential for thousands of gallons of petroleum to seep into the soil and groundwater. While the gravity of the local contamination is still being monitored, one state environmental report called the pollution “severe.” Another said samples of soil from the Seminary Street site “show extreme high levels of contamination.” Justin Pittman, an environmental health specialist for the Three Rivers District Health Department said this type of contamination can cause health concerns –– especially if it affects water supplies. And based on the state’s early analyses “hydrocarbon contamination does exist on site in groundwater.” That’s according to Roger Breeden, a senior project manager for the site’s clean-up efforts. He wrote in a two-page memo –– obtained by an open-records request –– that “the groundwater contamination could exceed beyond the point of compliance.” That finding poses the greatest risk for neighbors of the property who may come into direct contact with the groundwater –– most notably, those neighbors who rely on untreated water from a well or cistern. Contaminated groundwater can also flow into ponds and rivers, presenting additional risks for the community. According to environmental warnings, consumption of fish tainted with contaminated groundwater can also pose a risk. Using contaminated groundwater and surface water for irrigation can result in plants retaining the contaminants. People and animals may then be exposed by eating those contaminated plants. Kentucky American Water customers, and those who consume treated water, should not be affected by any local contamination, health department officials said. Not an isolated problem Kentucky has experienced over 13,000 underground petroleum storage tank leaks, according to a report from the Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet. These problems have led to new innovations in petroleum tank designs, in which piping and monitoring systems remain above ground. Nevertheless, thousands of improper tanks remain underground and it’s unclear how threatening leaks from these tanks are to the environment without proper soil and groundwater testing. “There are old tanks in the ground all over this town,” said Darian Carter, owner of the contaminated site. Carter maintains that contamination found at his Seminary Street site could likely have spread from a number of sites –– including other former gas stations. Groundwater contamination can also easily spread from large amounts of wastewater discharge, according to environmental reports. That means effluent from the nearby laundromat –– located directly adjacent to the contamination site –– could have impacted the site’s severity. “It is hard to tell exactly where this is coming from,” Carter said, especially since contamination studies for neighboring properties haven’t been performed. Still, it’s Carter who must work with environmental agencies to clean up any new contamination at the site –– a process that will likely take more time and further soil testing. State records show it will cost more than $212,000 to bring the contaminated site to a level of compliance. Carter is eligible for reimbursement for the clean-up through the state’s Division of Waste Management. As for a new judicial center site for the county? “We’re back to square one,” Owen County Judge-Executive Billy O’Banion said, although he indicated earlier this month that the county would examine a secondary site on N. Main Street, which currently houses Full Service Auto.