Authorities work to clean up spills 

In 1983, workers at Marietta's Air Force Plant 6 were transferring the degreasing solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) from a rail car to an on-site storage tank when the ground started moving -- literally. TCE dissolves asphalt, and that's what was happening: More than 1,000 gallons of the cancer-causing chemical had slopped onto the ground when someone disconnected a line and didn't tell anyone.

It was the worst chemical spill ever at the facility, which is owned by the Defense Department and leased to Lockheed Martin to manufacture military aircraft such as C-130 cargo planes. But it was hardly the only release. From the time the plant was reopened in 1951 -- after a brief run during World War II -- industrial contaminants were being released into the soil, sometimes intentionally. "There were no hazardous waste regulations back then," says Amy Potter, an environmental engineer with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. "Basically, the common practice was to open up the back door and throw it out. They would take drums of waste and put it in the landfill." Rusted, leaking pipes and chemical runoff added to the toxic mess.

However the chemicals escaped, the result was a contamination plume that has since migrated off the plant's 923-acre property and into the surrounding Cobb County community. TCE has gotten into nearby groundwater, seeping into fractures in the bedrock and polluting local water supplies, say state officials. After contaminants were found at nearby Southern Polytechnic State University, Lockheed began to supply the campus with clean water for irrigation. Next door to the university, Lockheed has also provided Life College, a chiropractic school, with drinking water. Pollutants have seeped into Rottenwood Creek, which dumps into the Chattahoochee River, Atlanta's drinking water supply. The Rottenwood Creek contamination is not at levels considered dangerous, but because of the area's complex geology, neither the military nor state regulators know the extent of the damage. "A lot of the work out there is trying to find where the contamination is, because it's fractured rock," says Jim Ussery, a program manager at the Environmental Protection Division. "It's very complicated. As we have found [tainted] wells, we've closed them down."

The military says it's working to clean up the mess, even before it learns the full extent of the problem. According to Bill Brown, the Air Force's restoration program manager for Plant 6, his outfit is pumping out groundwater, then treating it with activated carbon to remove organic compounds like TCE. It is also using a chemical called potassium permanganate to break down poisons in the soil. Roger Lee, Lockheed's environmental resources manager at Plant 6, says the facility has dramatically reduced its use of toxic materials -- from 1,300 tons in 1988 to less than 30 tons today. TCE has been eliminated completely.

State regulators agree the Air Force and Lockheed have been cooperative. "A lot of people have told them they'd never be able to clean it up," says Potter. "They said, 'We want to try,' and they're still going at it." She pauses, considering the extent of the contamination. "We'll be working on it," she adds, "for years."

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