A large crowd showed up to the ASU Three Rivers campus on Tuesday afternoon to attend a public informational meeting, coordinated through multiple state agencies, regarding the pollution incident in Town and Chatman Creeks involving the Anthony Timberlands pine lumber sawmill on Cabe Avenue in Malvern.

Officials who addressed the audience were the newly-appointed Director and Chief Administrator of the the Arkansas Dept. of Energy and Environment, Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Caleb Osborne; ADEQ, Office of Water Quality (OWQ) Associate Director, Alan York; Patrick Fisk, Director of the Livestock and Poultry Division of the Arkansas Dept. of Agriculture and his associate, State Veterinarian, Dr. John Nilz; Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, Director of the Arkansas Dept. of Health; and Jason Olive, Chief of Fisheries Management with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

Each official rep took turns explaining their agency’s unique role, and their relative movements pertaining to the initial and ongoing investigation of the incident. Osborne gave a brief introduction, then York initiated the presentation by explaining ADEQ’s parameters of operation and sharing the bulk of information, starting with a timeline of events surrounding the incident.

“In February of 2022, we got an online complaint that, admittedly, was not followed up on by our agency,” York said. “That really, really showed a failure of our system as it exists, and we are working to address that so that that doesn’t happen in the future, so that every complaint is followed up on.”

On Sept. 2, 2022, his agency received a complaints of a suspected sewer leak. “Sewer leaks are not uncommon occurrences in and around municipalities in the state, or any state,” York said. “Oftentimes, it’s associated with significant rainfall that overwhelms a sanitary sewer system, and you’ll have manholes that are flooded and water coming out, and et cetera.”

After referring to the local municipality, city officials informed ADEQ that they had inspected their system and found no leaks or discharges in the sewer system. More complaints came in Sept. 12, and inspectors began their on-ground investigation of the area on Sept. 13, 2022.

“We also on the same day got a complaint regarding a discharge to what I refer to as the concrete ditch, which is the drainage ditch that runs alongside the Anthony Timberlands facility and drains a portion of the city of Malvern’s stormwater,” York said.

“What we did not realize at that initial date was that there was a connection between Town and Chatman Creeks,” York said, projecting a satellite view of the sawmill and outlying areas to show the audience a broad overview of the impacted area. The concrete ditch leads to the unnamed tributary, which flows into Town Creek.

“At that point, it was unknown what the discharge was,” York continued while projecting several photos of polluted water, taken during the initial investigation, noting that the water’s observable conditions changed as investigators moved upstream.

“At the day that we first got here, we did not have an answer to what we were seeing. We knew we had at least five water conditions that we were encountering, and we didn’t know if we had one problem, two problems, three problems, four problems, or five problems,” York said.

On Sept. 14, compliance staff took samples from seven different locations to conduct water and soil tests. Two days later, ADEQ conducted an inspection of the Anthony Timberlands-Malvern  facility. On Sept. 22, OWQ Compliance Branch Manager Jason Bolenbaugh emailed Wilson Anthony to inform them of their concerns and request corrective measures from the company.

“So, at this point we knew we had a problem with Anthony Timberlands-Malvern. What we did no know was whether that was the problem, or the only problem,” York said.

“On September 29, we sent a more formal Interim Measures Request,” he said. “We followed that up as we learned more as the sampling events and sample results got back to us, with a supplemental Interim Measures Request for those downstream impacts.”

Anthony Timberlands responded to the request on Oct. 3, 2022. “On October 6 they began providing daily updates to ADEQ regarding the work being done,” York said. “On October 14, we received notification that EPA Region 6 was sending an assessment team to Malvern to take a look at the incident.”  EPA issued a Statement of Work to Anthony Timberlands on Oct. 17.

According to the timeline, Anthony Timberlands continued their cleanup efforts straight through the end of 2022, and a final walk-through of the facility was conducted by EPA Region 6 officials on Jan. 26, 2023. “And Anthony Timberlands is released from their Statement of Work and then is covered by the Remediation and Maintenance Plan that was worked through from October until in January and finalized there in mid-January,” York said.

“So. I imagine most folks are saying, ‘well, what now?’ Well, the things that I can tell you is that Anthony Timberlands, for their operations to continue in the manner that they currently exist, are going to have to get multiple additional water permits and land permits,” York said.

“We also, as I mentioned earlier, we have a particular circumstance in this, where the concrete ditch is, where it is particularly prone to sanitary sewer overflows from the Malvern sewer collection system. So, we have instituted additional oversight of the Malvern sewer collection system and are requiring additional downstream testing after they have a sanitary sewer overflow,” he said.

The remediation and maintenance plan is 150-some-odd pages of detail about the work that’s to be conducted, but in simple terms, it involves soil sampling, sediment sampling, water sampling, and then remediation,” York said. “Remediation will namely be in the soils, there will be excavation where that is appropriate, monitoring and natural attenuation where that is appropriate, and manual removal of material as I’m sure most of you have seen the boons in the streams to collect any residual oil that is flushed loose.”

York also broke down the results from the most recent round of soil and water samples taken at various locations around the impacted area near the end of February. “These latest results are promising, they’re showing improving water quality,” he said.

“Chromium and nickel have been detected, but they’re below water quality standards,” he said, adding that copper levels have been high. but the chemists have questions about the readings because the blank sample that was expected to come back “clean” also came back indicating copper. “That’s something we’re still looking at,” York said.

Zinc levels were slightly elevated compared to the background level previously recorded at their ambient water quality site. “Currently, zinc violates the water quality standards,” York said.

Lead was not detected anywhere in the most recent tests, except in sample taken near the unnamed tributary along the South Walco bridge, referred to in the paperwork as AT7. “Cobalt is elevated slightly against the background samples, but there’s no aquatic or human health criteria available to evaluate cobalt,” York said.

“And I think this will probably be welcome news to the folks who are involved in cattle ranching, the water results in February do not exceed the criteria for the water for beef cattle reference document from the U of A, so that is a positive,” York said.

However, the latest results from the soil samples are less promising.  “They are telling us that there are areas of known off-site contamination, primarily in that immediately-downstream wetland area,” York said, referencing an area immediately west of South Walco Road adjacent to the unnamed tributary.

“Remediation using excavation has begun in that area,” York said, stating that the soil in that area was removed and carted off. “Nature and extent investigations will continue with soil sampling, to determine how far that soil remediation needs to progress.”

Read the full story in Thursday's March 16 newspaper edition.

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