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Why hasn’t toxic Fairmont Brine site been fenced off, residents wonder

FAIRMONT — After reading a TruthDig article that was recently published on the Fairmont Brine Processing Plant, Paul Baker decided to go check it out himself. What he found confirmed what the article reported.

An unsecured site filled with toxic chemicals and radiation levels significantly above background level. Two unsecured pools filled with who-knows-what that present a risk of drowning. Even worse, he found beer bottles and other things which seemed to corroborate that the article’s assertion that the site is used as a hangout spot by teenagers.

Baker is a chemist by education and profession, as well as a member of the Save the Tygart Watershed Foundation. Using his contacts in the field, he dug around for more information. But one thing stuck out in Baker’s mind. Why hasn’t anyone done the bare minimum and fenced it off?

“Everyone seems to be passing the buck,” he said. “I think it looks like EPA are going to be the ultimate authority to do something but it looks to me like they’re kicking the ball down the road and going through procedures that are going to take some time. We don’t have time to let this thing lie.”

Kelly Offner, media and public affairs specialist for the EPA’s mid-Atlantic region, said that the EPA is aware of the problem and has been in touch with Fairmont’s law enforcement and the Homeland Security center run by Director Chris McIntire. They’ve also approved resources to secure the site. The EPA later released a written statement through Offner.

“EPA and state and local partners are already taking steps to secure the site,” the statement reads. “Fairmont Police Department will be making more frequent patrols to the property and EPA plans to install fencing at the facility.”

No timetable for installing a fence around the plant was provided. Although Chris McIntire was not available to comment, a call to the Marion County 911 Call Center revealed that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and EPA were taking the lead on the plant.

Interim Fairmont City Clerk, David Kirk, said that the City of Fairmont has no involvement with the plant because it lies outside the city limits. The Marion County Sheriff’s Department did not return a phone call by press time. Neither did representatives from the WVDEP.

Del. Joey Garcia, D-76, has been in touch with officials from WVDEP. He said that EPA has an allocation of $250,000 to clean up through the use of Superfund money. The goal is to do a site assessment as soon as possible, and the topic is the subject of weekly calls at EPA.

However, a gordian knot tied around property rights is complicating attempts to fence off the plant. “I also have heard that Fairmont Brine is the owner but not the occupant,” Garcia said. “From what I understand, there’s a lessee involved that has not been cooperative.”

Kris Cinalli, Marion County Administrator, said part of the problem is that the county doesn’t own the land the plant sits on. But getting in touch with anyone who can make decisions regarding the property has proved fruitless.

Cinalli said the county also doesn’t wish to move unilaterally without the Department of Homeland Security or EPA’s input, because raising a fence on property the county does not own would constitute trespassing.

Garcia was told that raising a fence was not legally possible at this point. He added that looking into the laws regarding what the Department of Health can do in these situations is something the legislature can look into.

The specialized nature of the site also limits what the county can help with.

“We’re not equipped to deal with any kind of hazardous waste claim,” Cinalli said. “We don’t have the training or the equipment to really do much of anything beyond maybe identify some problems. But that being said, if the EPA called today and said, ‘Hey, can you get some permanent or temporary fencing up?’ I think we would have it up ASAP.”

Cinalli’s phone has yet to ring. He also pointed out that the EPA has written reports on the site and is aware of the problems, but questioned why it hasn’t moved to secure the site yet.

The Times West Virginian obtained one such report, dated Sept. 22, 2023. The report states that a fire took place at the site back in May, which blew a tank over the top of a building and 100 yards away from its original location.

The EPA confirmed the presence of Radium 226, a radioactive isotope. At the location of the fire, the report states that radiation up to 3 mR/hr was detected where the fire occurred.

The site as a whole ranged between 1 to 3 mR/hr. The EPA recommends exposure rate of not more than 2 mR/hr. It also stated that 0.1 mR/hr is the background level for that area.

Two large artificial ponds, one for brine and one for distilled water, pose an additional hazard. Aside from being filled with toxic chemicals, the report said officials observed a contractor pumping water from the tanks.

The Monongahela river is close by. Cinalli is concerned that runoff from the plant could enter the river, which is where Morgantown pulls a lot of its water from.

For now, whether or not a threat to river exists is pending an analysis from the EPA. It appears that any toxic materials haven’t spread beyond the site. However, the site is still dangerous, which makes securing the site all the more pressing, since the EPA’s report confirms the rampant trespassing observed by local and state officials.

The author of the TruthDig article reported finding a dirty mattress and condoms among the trash potentially left behind by teens.

“If people were in there having sex, it’s one thing to come out with radioactive materials on your boots,” Cinalli said. “It’s a whole other thing, if you’re in there, you know, doing stuff. Exposing the outside and insides of your body, it’s a whole different ballgame, you know?”

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