What was supposed to be a meeting about drilling wells near the old Whirlpool facility turned into a heated debate between the city, Whirlpool and a state agency over a 30-year-old chemical spill at the plant.
Fort Smith City Directors were supposed to discuss a proposed drilling ordinance at the meeting Wednesday night (March 27, 2013), which would have banned any drilling on the site were Whirlpool and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) are concerned about a chemical spill. Whirlpool says the spill, which occurred at its facility on Jenny Lind more than 30 years ago, leaked trichloroethylene (TCE) into the ground in the area.
Whirlpool says they began using the chemical trichloroethylene in 1967 as a degreaser. The company said they discontinued using TCE in 1981, but it wasn’t until 2001 that the company says they became aware that the contamination had spread beyond its property.
Whirlpool asked that the city consider the drilling ordinance in order to prevent more pathways from opening up, and more people from potentially being affected by the TCE spill. However, Whirlpool then asked that the ordinance be deferred. The company said that they would rather discuss the ordinance after they had more time to put together a remediation plan, review that plan with the community, the public and the ADEQ.
However, instead of discussing the ordinance, the city began drilling Whirlpool and ADEQ.
"While we may not like being in the hot seat, I think it's very important that we are," Jeff Noel, a spokesman for Whirlpool, said. "I think it's very important that we take all of the questions and attempt to answer them."
The city said they are and will continue to demand answers from both Whirlpool and ADEQ regarding the TCE plume. They say that's in an effort to protect the citizens of Fort Smith.
After an hour and a half, directors voted the ordinance down six to one but they also demanded that Whirlpool and ADEQ come up with some sort of remedy for the TCE contamination.
"What they really wanted to happen is for Whirlpool and ADEQ to work together to quickly resolve the matter," explained Tracy Wichell, who is the communications manager for Fort Smith.
"The most important thing to do is to look to the regulatory agencies that have accountability to protect the public health and deal with the environment and that is being done," Noel said after the meeting. "I think we have to give a lot of respect to the findings and the determinations that have been made preliminarily by the ADEQ and where we are going to be with the final plan moving forward."
The company will meet with residents individually in the area over the next few weeks to discuss cleanup plans, according to Noel. In the meantime, they say they will continue working with ADEQ to come up with a solution.