Earth Healing The Health of the Bluegrass Is The Triangle Really Golden

The Health of the Bluegrass:
Is the Triangle Really Green?

Published by Earth Healing in cooperation with
EcoPerspectives, a project of Earth Island Institute



Numerous hazardous waste sites

            Kentucky as a whole has about one thousand hazardous waste sites. Of these sites 514 are Superfund sites, sites that contain toxic waste and that must be cleaned up in conformity with the regulations in Kentucky Revised Statutes 224.01-400 and 224.01-405.  The Bluegrass is the location of 224 of the Superfund sites, according to a list of Superfund sites statewide furnished to us by the Kentucky Division of Waste Management in June 2008.  Ninety-five of the Superfund sites in this region, forty-two percent of the total in the Bluegrass, are in Jefferson County.  The only other counties in this region with more than ten sites are Madison with thirteen, and Bullitt and Fayette with eleven each.  The predominance of Jefferson County reflects the fact that this is the most industrialized county in the Bluegrass Region. The counties nearest to Cincinnati: Boone, Kenton, and Campbell have respectively eight, seven, and six Superfund sites and those along the Ohio River between Jefferson and Boone have a total of fourteen sites. 

            Kentucky has had twenty sites on the National Priority List (NPL) of Superfund sites.  These sites, which are not included in the total of 514 sites discussed above, are sites for which the US EPA supervised/supervises the cleanup, because of the extremely hazardous nature of actual or potential releases.  Eight of the NPL sites were in the Bluegrass.  Four of those have been removed from the list because all work has been completed, and four are what are called “final” National Priority List sites, i.e. remedial activities at the site are continuing but the sites are in a post-construction phase.  Two are in Bullitt County: Smith’s Farm in Brooks and Tri-City Disposal Co. in Sheperdsville;  one in Jefferson County: Distler Farm on Blevins Gap Road; and one in Fleming County, Maxey Flats (1).  

Numerous Superfund sites are dumps created by municipalities before federal and state regulations for the disposal of hazardous materials went into effect.  Many others belong to businesses that have closed down.  Today corporations are required to report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) all releases of toxic materials into the air, water, and land, including waste disposal in landfills.  Their reports are available to the general public through the web site         

The danger with hazardous waste sites, apart from the possibility that people in the future will try to raise vegetables on them or drill wells for drinking water in them, is that the toxic materials may spread outside the site.  If the hazardous material is not adequately contained, it can contaminate the ground beyond the site’s boundaries, become volatile and cause air pollution, or contaminate surface or ground water.  A major source of problems is rain that infiltrates a site and leaches chemicals from it.  The University of Kentucky has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health for a study entitled “Nutrition and Superfund Chemical Toxicity.”  Researchers will study whether polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can cause obesity and heart disease, try to develop means of detecting very low levels of pollution, and look into whether nutrition can prevent hazardous pollutants from causing disease  (2).

The location in the Bluegrass that arguably harbors the greatest risks from hazardous wastes is the Blue Grass Army Depot (BGAD) in Madison County.  The depot was established in 1942 “for the receipt, issuance, storage, maintenance, and disposal of ammunition,” both chemical and conventional.  Its 14,600 acres include areas for the demolition of ordnance and munitions, areas for the storage of ordnance and munitions, and depot facilities.  Land not needed for military purposes is leased to farmers for grazing cattle.

BGAD destroys conventional weapons by means of “incineration, open burning of propellant, and detonation.”  The “demilitarization, renovation, maintenance, storage, and disposal of munitions” creates hazardous waste (3).   In the words of the site’s fiscal year 2001 Installation Action Plan,, “Contamination consists mainly of metals, explosives, organics (volatile/non-volatile), mustard agent/derivatives.”  (The last is due to the fact that in the past a chemical agent, mustard, was burned in the open air.)  “Groundwater contamination of uncertain impact has been identified.  There is no evidence that any contamination has left the boundary of the installation.”   Investigation of soil contamination and of water pollution began in 1982, and, as of 2001, remediation was in progress.  

Chemical weapons, with the exception of the mustard already dealt with, are to be destroyed by special means.  The Depot stores 523 tons of the blister agent mustard, and of the nerve agents GB (sarin) and VX, 1.7% by weight of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile when it began its weapons destruction program.  Nerve agents act by inhibiting the action of acetylcholinesterase throughout the body. This substance normally hydrolizes acetylcholine.  When acetylcholine accumulates, muscles, including those in the respiratory system, cannot contract and relax normally. Paralysis of the muscles used in breathing causes victims to die.  The chemical can be absorbed through the skin as well as by breathing.  The V agents are more lethal and more persistent than the G agents.

BGAD stores 32,285 projectiles, 8-inch and 155-mm, containing GB, VX, or, more frequently, mustard; 69,449 rockets, “highly explosive assembled weapons” containing GB or VX; and 30 rocket warheads with GB or VX (4).  The containers and the weapons are themselves inside subsurface containment structures or “igloos.” At times leaks from the weapons are reported in the press. The possible leak of a nerve agent outside the containment structure is the great danger.

           According to the terms of the Chemical Weapons Treaty, which went into force in 1997, nations were to destroy their stocks of chemical weapons by April 2007.  The deadline under the treaty has been extended to 2012 but, knowing that this cannot be met, the U.S. Congress has set a deadline for the United States of 2017.  The 2017 deadline is unlikely to be met at Richmond or at Pueblo, Colorado.  The weapons in Kentucky and in Colorado are to be destroyed by an Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program within the Department of Defense, mandated by Congress in 1996.  The method chosen for Richmond is neutralization followed by supercritical water oxidation.  A Joint Venture of Bechtel and Parsons has received a contract for the work.  As of June 2008 a pilot plant was under construction. However, in July, USA Today reported that the Department of Defense was considering shipping the weapons at Richmond and Pueblo to other sites to speed up their destruction  (5).   

            Also highly hazardous, though believed to be contained, is the waste at the Maxey Flats Nuclear Disposal site on the border of the Outer Bluegrass in southern Fleming County.  The site originally was 280 acres in extent but today includes a buffer zone of approximately 550 acres.  From 1963 to 1977 the state of Kentucky licensed private operators to dispose of so-called low-level radioactive waste, from military and civilian sources, at the site.  In the words of the US EPA, “approximately 533,000 pounds of source material (consisting of uranium and thorium or ores containing uranium and thorium), 22 mega curies of by-product materials, and 950 pounds of special nuclear material (plutonium and enriched uranium) were buried” there (6).   By the mid-1970s highly carcinogenic plutonium had moved hundreds of feet from the burial site and was appearing in surface soils and drainage streams.  Water was entering burial trenches despite their earthen caps.  An evaporator to process the seepage was installed.  Not only could it not keep up with the water but it released tritium (radioactive hydrogen) in its steam.  The state had purchased the site and leased it to the operator Nuclear Engineering Company (NECO, now US Ecology).  When the site was closed to commerce in 1977, the state bought the lease rights from NECO and began maintaining the site itself.

            Today the site is on the National Priority List of Superfund sites.  Initial remediation work was completed in October, 2003.  It included  removing water from the landfill, solidifying radioactive leachate and storing it and other contaminated materials in reinforced concrete bunkers constructed on the site, installing a drainage system, and placing an interim cap over the facility.  The EPA is now evaluating results to determine if a final cap can be installed.  The state is still obligated to control access, monitor, and maintain the site, in accordance with US EPA-approved work plans (7).

            Coal-fired power plants manage extensive toxic waste sites, as they store fly ash and other coal combustion by-products (CCBs) either as solids in landfills or as sludge in ponds.  Kentucky Utilities’ Ghent Power Station in Carroll County has two sludge ponds, the first 120-acres in extent.  Power plant sites may not be classed as Superfund sites, but their contents, nevertheless, contain an astounding assortment of poisons.  According to the Toxic Release Inventory, the Ghent plant sent to its active pond in 2006, 94,470 pounds of arsenic compounds, 17,690 pounds of beryllium compounds, 143,100 pounds of chromium compounds, 125,149 pounds of lead compounds, 181 pounds of mercury compounds, 168,300 pounds of nickel compounds, and 450,500 pounds of zinc compounds, among other toxics (8).  Are the toxic substances stored at Ghent and other power plants completely confined in their respective disposal locations?

            Fly ash has long been used as a feed material for cement.  Heating the raw material for cement at high temperatures in a cement kiln volatilizes some of the toxics in the fly ash, including mercury.  Thus fly ash contributes to the large amounts of mercury released by the kilns (9).  As regulations force utilities to curb air and water pollution from power plants, an increasing percentage of the plant’s toxics are ending up in the fly ash rather than in the air or water.  The ash is thus becoming less usable.  The University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research is working to find ways to make the ash more suitable in content and size for reuse, and, in fact, recently operated a pilot Advanced Multi-Product Coal Utilization Byproduct Processing Plant at Ghent. 

                                                                        --Mary Byrd Davis

1.  See for more details US EPA, “National Priorities List Sites in Kentucky,” available on the Internet at

2.  Andy Mead, “UK to Study Diet-Pollution Link,” Lexington Herald-Leader, May 28, 2008, p. 1A.

3. Installation Action Plan for Bluegrass Army Depot, Fiscal Year 2001, available on the Internet at  The description of the site in this and the following paragraph is drawn from Installation Information and Description, pp. 1 and 2, and Contamination Assessment, p. 1 of this document.

4., Bluegrass Army Depot (BGAD), Bluegrass Chemical Activity (BGCA), Richmond, Kentucky, available on the Internet at

5.  Tom Vanden Brook, “Chemical Weapons Transport Plan Draws Fire,” USA Today, July 2, 2008.

6. US EPA, Region 4: Superfund, Kentucky NPL/NPL Caliber Cleanup Site Summaries, available on the Internet at,” accessed June 16, 2008.

7. US EPA, Region 4: Superfund; and Kentucky Division of Waste Management, Maxey Flats, available on the Internet at, accessed June 16, 2008;  Albert J. Fritsch, Arthur H. Purcell, Mary Byrd Davis, Critical Hour (San Francisco: Yggdrasil, 2004), p. 56, available on the Internet at

8. Division of Specialized Information Services, National Library of Medicine, Toxmap, available online at

9.  Earth Justice Environmental Integrity Project, Cementing a Toxic Legacy? (Washington, D.C.: Earth Justice, 2008), p. 13, available online at



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