Attorney Marie Harkins, who represents a construction worker who claims to have health problems from working at the Atlantic Station site, requested the investigation.
After only three or four days of construction work at the Atlantic Station site, Ron L. Sacks experienced headaches so severe that, for the first time in his life, over-the-counter medications wouldn't ease his pain. He says he tried everything he could find at the drugstore: Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, etc. None of them worked.
At work he'd run the augur, a big drill capable of digging more than 50 feet into the ground. He wasn't given a mask, respirator or any other protective device. He was told to "drill until refusal," which means to drill until you can't drill any deeper.
On occasion, that meant stopping after he hit 35-gallon drums buried about 25-30 feet underground.
The drums burst when the drill penetrated them and leaked a green liquid that "burned my nose and made it hard to breathe," Sacks says.
After a month of working there, he'd become highly irritable and experienced sudden fatigue and memory failure. Other co-workers complained of similar problems. Sacks and the other workers were told by supervisors that they had sinus or allergy problems.
Brian Brown, safety director for the subcontractor Sacks worked for, says a crew did encounter some buried barrels that were removed by a hazardous waste response team. Brown also says Sacks was fired for having a poor work ethic.
"As far as protective clothing, none of that was needed because sufficient remediation was already done," Brown said.
Sacks' story comes from a petition Harkins filed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asking its Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to investigate claims that more than 180,000 tons of hazardous materials are buried under the former Atlantic Steel site.
She filed the petition Nov. 8. First indications suggest the agency will indeed be digging a little deeper into the Atlantic Station area. On Monday, Nov. 26, Harkins received word from the agency that it's beginning a preliminary investigation by requesting data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Environmental Protection Division.
Agency investigators also will visit the Atlantic Station site and hold a public hearing before they decide if they'll launch a full-on investigation.
"This is not an unusual type of site for us to be working on," says Kathy Skipper, spokeswoman for the Agency for Toxic Substances. "An old, industrial site now located in a populated area is not an uncommon issue for us."
Ultimately, the agency could decide whether there's a chance the contamination on the site could affect public health.
Harkins has been doing her own investigation into the causes of Sacks' illnesses for two months. So far, she has a videotape of uncovered dump trucks going through Home Park from Atlantic Station to a landfill. (Previous soil tests found more than a dozen yards in neighboring homes with lead contaminations higher than the EPA's guideline of 400 parts per million. Soil taken from the Atlantic Station site had lead contamination 500 times higher than EPA's safety limits.)
She also found EPA documents showing that Atlantic Steel shipped about 476,000 pounds of hazardous waste to Tri-Chem Corp., which is listed as a "landfill/disposal impoundment" site by the EPA.
The problem with shipping the hazardous materials to Tri-Chem is that the landfill's address (1269 Mescalin St.) puts it next door to Atlantic Steel and within the Atlantic Station development site.
According to EPD documents, as recently as 1993, Tri-Chem treated, stored or disposed of 7,900 tons of hazardous materials. In 1991, Tri-Chem's Atlanta site was the 12th largest hazardous waste management facility in Georgia, receiving 5.4 tons of waste.
Tri-Chem also shipped some hazardous waste back to Atlantic Steel, EPA documents show.
Harkins also interviewed a former Atlantic Steel worker who says there are numerous pits, such as the ones Sacks accidentally discovered, all over the Atlantic Station site.
"These pits were dug approximately 20-30 feet down, and many waste materials were buried in the pits. Some were for sludge from the steel mill, while others were for more hazardous materials," the petition says.
The former Atlantic Steel employee is not named in the petition and Harkins won't release his name.
Harkins did provide CL with a map drawn by the Atlantic Steel employee that shows where the alleged pits are buried. The map shows six pits. Two are labeled "mercury" and "lead," one is labeled "PCBs" (a liquid linked to cancer, hormonal problems and weakened immune systems) and another is called "sludge pits."
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