By Joel Phelps
GUM SPRINGS — It’s nearing midnight on a cold February evening. Clay flings upward as our hatchback climbs the winding stretch of Hasley Road toward the fenced-off factories that make up the Clark County Industrial Park.
An anonymous tip of a chemical spill led us here. The Arkadelphian first made contact with the county’s Office of Emergency Management to confirm this incident, but we’re referred to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.
We’ve been told heavy equipment was used to dig up a sizable chunk of earth to remove the spillage, but there’s no sign of activity at Veolia’s plant or its waste transfer property. We retreat home, and the following morning submit a Freedom of Information request to ADEQ asking for documents pertaining to a hazardous waste or chemical spill incident or accident that has occurred in or near the industrial park — particularly on lands leased, managed or owned by Veolia North America — during the month of February 2022. A few mornings later, the answer lands in our inbox.
The ADEQ records reveal that the Feb. 23 spill was a mixture of 6,000 gallons of hazardous waste that is greater than 90 percent water. To put 6,000 gallons into perspective, the average Arkadelphia resident uses about 4,000 gallons of water in a month. The spill happened when a storage tank valve was left open, and the mixture poured onto the clay and gravel on site.
We also learn from the ADEQ records that this spill hasn’t been the first of its kind at Veolia. We learn there have been other documented chemical spills at the plant since 2019. The hazardous characteristics of the chemicals are checked off as OSHA carcinogens and underlying hazardous constituents. The spills contained arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium and silver, among halogens bromine, chlorine, fluorine and iodine.
According to ADEQ records, among the chemicals included in the Veolia spills are barium, used in water treatment, photography and medicine; arsenic, which is found in natural substances like stone fruits such as rice, apples and peach pits; mercury, used in gold mining, medical and scientific applications, and in old HVAC systems; and cadmium, which is used in dyes and medical applications.
What is Veolia?
Headquartered in Paris, France, Veolia is the largest environmental service company in the world and boasts more than $30 billion in assets.
Though the company owns landfills across the globe, the Gum Springs landfill is the company’s only such site in the U.S.
Veolia’s Gum Springs facility sits on a 1,400-acre site. The treatment facility comprises nearly 75 acres in the center of the site, with its landfill facility taking up 90 acres. The company’s website notes the capabilities of the local treatment facility has two calciner kilns and associated afterburners as hazardous waste incinerators in addition to the hazardous waste landfill. Both the incinerator and landfill are permitted to treat and dispose of nearly all categories of liquid and solid hazardous wastes, with stabilization, fuel blending and wastewater treating capabilities.
Besides large truck deliveries, Veolia also accepts smaller truck deliveries in containers such as drums and boxes. A company spokesperson said all deliveries are “properly manifested” with information on the nature of the waste materials in accordance with regulatory requirements. Waste is also delivered to the site by rail via the Union Pacific Railroad.
“Despite our commitment to safety and diligence, there have been a small handful of minor spill incidents that have occurred at the site over the past three years,” said Bob Cappadona, CEO of Veolia North America, in email correspondence. “In each instance, the spill was immediately contained and remediated, followed by a thorough root cause analysis to determine how it happened and action steps to prevent a similar occurrence.” Asked how the employees are held accountable in the event of a spill, Cappadona said, “In every root cause analysis, individual responsibility is taken into account and addressed accordingly.”
The company maintains that the Gum Springs site is “designed and structured” by using “quick containment and remediation” to minimize a chemical spill’s impact at the plant. “In all areas where materials are transferred or stored, spills are contained on surfaces that are lined with concrete or epoxy-coated concrete that eliminate any risk to the environment,” Cappadona said. “In rare instances where spills occur into the soil, the site is well equipped to remove all contamination and dispose of it safely, usually through incineration.”
The incineration process, according to Veolia, neutralizes the material before it is hauled across the road to the landfill.
Veolia in Gum Springs
For decades, the Gum Springs plant was one of many Reynolds facilities around the nation, and was a major employer in Clark County. The landfill across the street was used to house spent pot liner, a carbon-based byproduct of the aluminum manufacturing process.
The company eventually exchanged hands with Alcoa, which ran the operation for a number of years until Veolia purchased the plant, landfill and property in 2020.
By 2024, Veolia hopes to modernize the Gum Springs facility, investing “several hundred million dollars” into new equipment that would replace some of the equipment pre-dating the ‘90s, said Britt Scheer, director of facility affairs at Veolia’s local plant. “When we finish this project we’ll be the most modern, cleanest operation in the world.”
Before Veolia took over the operation, it received permit expansions to include solid and hazardous material for incineration.
So what all waste does Veolia accept?
“What we probably should talk about is what we don’t take,” Scheer said. “We don’t take explosives, we don’t take infectious medical waste, we don’t take radioactive materials.” Nor does the plant accept perfluoroalykl or polyfluoroalkyl (together known as PFAS or man-made “forever” chemicals) substances, Scheer said.
While Veolia has the permit to accept expired pharmaceuticals, the facility has the option to turn materials away. We asked if the Gum Springs plant would accept fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine — a popular new drug that easily causes death by overdose and is sweeping the nation. “Fentanyl is a good example of something we could legally take but that we choose not to because of the hazard associated with it,” Scheer said.
There have been eyewitness accounts of incoming shipments that arrive with leaking containers. In response to this, Scheer said in those scenarios Veolia is required to “contain” that shipment and report it to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Equality. “We can’t just turn them around and send them off with a leaking container,” he said.
In terms of inspections, ADEQ is required to perform annual inspections, but Scheer said the agency has someone on site at least once a quarter “to look at something specific and take a plant tour.” The Gum Springs facility has at least two inspections a year — for air quality and the landfill — from different ADEQ departments. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been at the Gum Springs site, but all the regulations pertaining to Veolia have been delegated to the state’s DEQ, Scheer said.
“Our goal is to have zero negative impact on anything surrounding,” Scheer said. “We actually want to have a positive impact.”
While the company has plans to expand its operation within the plant, Scheer said the company is satisfied with the site’s 1,400 acres. “We own all the property surrounding the plant. As property comes up for sale we would probably buy property that bordered us, and we’ve purchased some property in the past several years,” but not within the past five years, Scheer said.
Veolia’s impact on wildlife and livestock
A pair of retired birdwatchers say they frequent the area south of town, along Third Street, Copeland Ridge Road and Hasley Road. They’ve been birders for the past 35 years and have noticed that the volume of the old Reynolds landfill has grown. “When Veolia took over, that’s when it really took off,” said one of the birdwatchers, who also spoke on condition of anonymity in fear of losing access to the city’s sewer ponds, where they observe many waterfowl. They visit the area once or twice weekly and say the site has expanded upward and eastward.
The birders each year watch the migration of the sandhill crane, and this is the only area in Clark County where they have had success viewing them. They say they have seen fewer of the cranes land in the past several years. While it’s birds and fowl that draw them to the area, the birders have also seen feral hogs and black bear on or near the Veolia property.
Scheer said salamanders and alligators can be found on the property, as well, but he isn’t concerned that the site presents any dangers to wildlife. “I feel good about what we do out there,” he said. “We have lots of wildlife.” Ducks, he said, even land in the stormwater collection pond, which is tested before it is released.
Neighbors react to Veolia
There is a residential area, known locally as Hasleyville, south of the Veolia property. Rickey Hasley has lived in Gum Springs his entire life, and his siblings have built homes on the land they inherited from their father
Hasley worked a number of years at the Reynolds plant, and admits the company provided good jobs. Now that he’s retired and has no connection to Reynolds or Veolia, he has no qualms with speaking up.
“We’re just told [the landfill is] safe,” he said. “Prove it. There’s no communication with us. I’m not saying we’re supposed to know their daily operation, we just want to know who’s on guard. Just showing us documentation proving it’s safe, that would go a long way.”
Veolia representatives say they have offered Hasley and others in the area for an on-site tour of the operation, and intend to continue their invitations.
Other neighbors declined an interview but said Veolia has made multiple offers to purchase their land.
In a final email to this site, Cappadona released this statement:
“As a national leader in environmental services, Veolia North America’s mission is to provide safe, comprehensive and effective solutions for taking on the world’s greatest environmental challenges, including the management of hazardous materials. The facility we operate in Gum Springs is located, designed and equipped to ensure that these materials do not pose a danger to the surrounding environment — this is our purpose as a company.
“Yet due to unforeseen factors, some minor spills have occurred at the site, and each time we have made sure to fully report the incident to regulatory authorities and do everything in our power to fully remediate the impact. In each instance, our response has met with the approval of all regulators. Our commitment to safety is why we have taken every effort to equip the site to reduce the chance for accidents, and minimize the impacts should they occur. One would be hard pressed to find a waste management company or facility better suited for remediating the impacts of a spill than Veolia North America and the facility in Gum Springs. This is due to several factors:
- Training and expertise: our teams of operators at the Gum Springs site receive extensive, ongoing training for the handling of these materials, as part of a “Goal Zero” culture that requires our team to follow strict protocols for safety procedures while wearing protective equipment at all times.
- Procedures and remediation practices: In the rare instances in which spills have occurred, the materials were immediately contained, collected and removed for proper disposal. No materials were allowed to spread beyond the plant’s borders or into the ground.
- Safeguards and soils: all materials that are received at the site are transferred for disposal or storage in specially contained areas with floor surfaces that are lined with concrete or epoxy-coated concrete to eliminate the chance for seepage into the ground. The containment areas are bordered with catchments meant to prevent the spread of any spilled materials. In addition, the location of the plant itself is ideally suited for spill containment due to the thick layers of clay in the soil, which provide a further barrier against penetration into the ground.
“In short, we are extremely proud of the work our teams at Gum Springs do everyday to maintain the highest standards for safety and operational excellence, and protect the environmental resources in the community. We strongly encourage you to join us on a tour of the facility to see the safety processes we follow, and the numerous safeguards we have in place.”