The dispute over whether a company has to clean up soil and surface-level water contaminated by dangerous chemicals could depend on whether regulators decide it is too salty to drink.

Environmental groups — including the Altamaha Riverkeeper and Glynn Environmental Coalition — point to effects of pollution that are an issue in a much larger area than that covered under the federal Superfund designation for the Terry Creek outfall. Hercules and Pinova, past and present operators of the nearby plant site in question, would be on the hook for clean-up if state regulators ruled the water is drinkable.

As described in the Georgia Water Coalition’s “Dirty Dozen” report, Hercules is making the case to regulators that it should not need to clean up areas contaminated by pollutants migrating off the plant site because saltwater entering the groundwater renders it undrinkable and is therefore no longer the company’s responsibility.

A July 31 report commissioned by Hercules — on a study requested by the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Division, and submitted to DNR — presents that argument and supporting evidence. The work was looking into what is described as a “salt wedge” of saltwater from the marsh working into fresh surface water that would be classified as drinking water quality.

According to the report’s introduction, prepared by Integral Consulting principal Steve Helgen and senior consultant Eron Dodak, the analyses indicated “…groundwater in the upper surficial aquifer beneath the eastern portion of the (plant) site and in offsite areas to the east of (U.S.) Highway 17 is naturally brackish due to the presence of a salt wedge.

“This area includes the eastern portion of the site and the offsite areas between (U.S.) Highway 17 and the salt marsh where groundwater has been impacted by the (volatile organic compounds) plume. Based on multiple lines of evidence presented below, the upper surficial aquifer in the area east of (U.S.) Highway 17 and beneath the eastern portion of the site does not represent a reliable source of potable water.”

That volatile compound plume includes benzene and chlorobenzene, which were found in wells on the east side of the highway in concentrations well above federal standards for water that is otherwise clean to drink. The chemicals can lead to increased risk of cancer, anemia, and diseases of the liver and kidneys, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

That plume led to a lawsuit between the owners of the Dixie O’Brien paint factory property on the east side of the highway, and Hercules and Pinova. The firm that collected the samples in 2014 that led to the lawsuit, Antea, also handled sampling for the 2017 salinity report.

Figure No. 2 in the integral salinity report shows saltwater pushing from the ocean — and by extension, the marsh — into fresh surface water in a wedge, shaped similar to wedge blocks placed against vehicle tires. It also shows saltwater deep underground pushing up through rock fractures and into the Upper Floridan Aquifer, where much of the region draws its water. The wells tested, then, showed saltwater infusion from both below and laterally, according to the report.

Figure No. 4 shows the salt wedge extending from the marsh, far across the highway and into the plant property. Indeed, the furthest push of saltwater through the N Street Ditch, is the path of toxic pollutants to the Terry Creek outfall. Georgia water quality standards list salinity of 0.5 parts per thousand or greater as at least brackish.

According to Figure No. 5, deep wells on the Hercules Terry Creek outfall property and around the paint factory property all show salinity higher than 0.5 ppt — ranging from 0.7 ppt at the most northerly well to 6.4 ppt between the paint factory building and the creek.

“Hercules has taken the money and run,” said Daniel Parshley, project manager for the Glynn Environmental Coalition, in an email to The News. “Hercules made millions upon millions of dollars while they soiled our community. It is time for Hercules to do the patriotic and right thing and cleanup like every other good and responsible American citizen.

“It is time to show our community some respect and clean up their mess. Until Hercules does so, everyone in Glynn County will pay higher taxes because the reduced land values of this prime waterfront property along Glynn Avenue that we so proudly call the Gateway to the Golden Isles.”

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