The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will clean up an abandoned aluminum smelter in Vestal under the federal Superfund program.
Smokey Mountain Smelters on Maryville Pike is one of eight polluted properties nationwide to be nominated for the National Priorities List, the EPA announced Tuesday. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation referred the site to the EPA for inclusion on the list.
According to the EPA, the two-part cleanup will scrub the site of contaminants that are leaching into groundwater and a nearby creek from the aluminum recycling performed from 1979 to 1994 by the now-defunct Rotary Furnace Inc.
"Cleaning up this site is a good thing for the community and Knox County," TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said. "The potential of turning it back to productive use is a positive step."
The first part of the cleanup would remove about 2,700 cubic yards of aluminum dross, a waste product, and demolish the dilapidated main processing building at a cost of up to $3 million, all in federal funds.
In an internal memo, TDEC's remediation director, Andy Binford, outlined the potential danger of inaction: "As this building continues to collapse, if a large amount of water were to contact the unreacted portion of aluminum dross, such as during a severe weather event, a fire and release of ammonia gas could result."
An estimated 2,545 people, including residents of the Montgomery Village housing project, live within a four-mile radius of the site.
The second part of the cleanup would occur after the 27-acre site is added to the National Priority List and would address 75,000 cubic yards of salt cake left over from agricultural chemical production from 1922 to 1979.
According to TDEC, a feasibility study would determine the scope and cost of the work. EPA would pay 90 percent of the second phase, with the state paying the remainder.
The Tennessee Clean Water Network, an environmental advocacy group, has studied the site and pressed state officials to clean it up for years. Renee Hoyos, the group's executive director, said Tuesday's announcement augurs well for an eventual cleanup.
"That's excellent," she said. "That site was leaching the periodic table of elements into that creek."
According to the EPA, the contamination from the aluminum recycling includes aluminum nitride, sodium and potassium chlorides, PCBs and heavy metals like arsenic. The agency reported that arsenic in excess of federal drinking water standards is in the groundwater.