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PUBLIC HEALTH ASSESSMENT

CHEMFAX, INC.
GULFPORT, HARRISON COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI


SUMMARY

Chemfax Inc. is an active chemical processing plant in Gulfport, Harrison County, Mississippi. Chemfax began producing petroleum hydrocarbon resins at the 11-acre property in 1955, before which Alpine Masonite operated chemical process facilities on the property. Facilities are principally raw materials storage tanks and process units. Ponds and drainage ditches also are present.

ATSDR concludes that the site poses a public health hazard based on the evidence that exposures to contaminants at concentrations that may cause adverse health effects have occurred in the past, might be occurring now, or are likely to occur in the future. Workers at the site were exposed to several PAHs in surface soil and sediments, and to benzene, methylene chloride, and styrene in air at levels of public health concern. It is possible that those workers may experience mild headaches, nausea and minor skin irritations because of exposure to high levels of PAHs in surface soil and sediments; mild decrease in immune function because of exposure to benzene in ambient air; and decrease in verbal learning skills because of exposure to styrene in air. Moreover, workers exposed to the highest concentrations of PAHs in surface soil and sediments or to benzene and methylene chloride in air might have a low increased risk of developing cancer in their lifetime.

Any children who practice soil-pica behavior and live within the immediate vicinity of Chemfax have no apparent increased risk of developing cancer because of exposure to the low concentrations of PAHs reported in off-site surface soils.

Potential routes for human exposure include ambient air, surface water and edible fish from the Industrial Seaway, groundwater, well water, and public supply water.

As part of the site investigation, ATSDR conducted two informal, one-on-one public availability meetings. Health concerns raised at the meetings have been addressed in the Public Health Implications section of this public health assessment.

Because workers at the site were exposed to contaminants at levels of public health concern, ATSDR is referring the Chemfax site to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for education or evaluation of on-site workers and to the Mississippi State Department of Health for their information. Because off-site areas are not fully characterized, and because additional sampling is necessary to determine whether a health study or other public health actions are necessary in the community, no further public health actions are planned at this time for that population.

ATSDR has made recommendations to reduce and prevent exposure to contaminants, characterize the site better, and implement institutional controls and other activities. If pertinent additional data and information become available, ATSDR will reevaluate this site for any indicated followup.

BACKGROUND

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ATSDR, under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) conducts public health assessments for sites the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposes for its National Priorities List (NPL). In response to EPA's proposed listing of the Chemfax, Inc. (Chemfax) site, ATSDR has, under its mandate, evaluated public health significance. The document was made available for public comment during October and November 1994. Comments received and our responses are provided in Appendix C.

A. Site Description and History

Introduction

Chemfax is located in northern Gulfport, Harrison County, Mississippi on approximately 11 acres of land leased from the county school board. The property has an untended gate at its entrance and is partially enclosed by a fence. ATSDR learned from Chemfax that someone is on site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Alpine Masonite (Alpine) operated chemical process facilities on the property prior to 1955. During a site visit in 1993, Chemfax officials advised ATSDR that their company leased most of the property in 1955 and began operations. Chemfax reported that Alpine terminated operations on its remaining parcel about 1991, and Chemfax leased that area in February 1993. Alpine produced glues used in manufacturing Masonite hardboard (1).

Chemfax produces synthetic hydrocarbon resins and waxes from petroleum. ATSDR representatives saw the facilities used to process liquid feed stocks into liquid resin products and solid paraffin products. Cooling water used in the paraffin process is obtained from an on-site industrial well and does not contact the wax. Cooling water was formerly stored and reused from a holding pond beside the railroad at the south end of the property. ATSDR representatives observed that the pond had been filled with soil recently; water now is cycled through a cooling tower. They also saw on the west side of the property a spray irrigation pond that Alpine had formerly used for disposal of process wastewater. Neither pond has, or reportedly had, an outlet.

Alpine once operated a cooling water lagoon on the northern part of the property (2). Although Chemfax has not used that pond, melted paraffin--attributed to fires that occurred at Chemfax in the past--is reported to have flowed into it. In 1982, the Mississippi Division of Solid Waste notified Chemfax that the pond could be drained, residual resin in the pond could be left in place, and the pond could be filled with dirt--providing that a minimum of 6 inches of clay was used for a cap. The pond was filled in the early 1980s. EPA reports a holding pond had existed at the south end of the property (1). ATSDR representatives observed no evidence of that former pond, and Chemfax personnel say they are unaware of such a pond.

Other investigators noted that Chemfax has discharged some of its cooling water into a ditch (location unspecified) that subsequently flows to Bernard Bayou (1). Chemfax reports that the plant presently has no point-source discharges to any of the drainage ditches on or adjacent to the property, and ATSDR observed no discharge to any ditch. A main ditch flows northward through the central part of the property, has two very small holding ponds, and flows to Bernard Bayou. ATSDR observed wax floating on pond water and learned that the wax originates from occasional washout of process areas with water hoses. Wax also is reported to originate from the past fires (2). Since 1974, Chemfax has had a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that regulates temperature, biological oxygen demand, total suspended solids, chemical oxygen demand, and oil and grease for water released from the property. In 1979, phenol was added to the permit (1). Samples for compliance monitoring are taken at the discharge of the most-downstream holding pond.

Packing material, synthetic resin mixtures, and paper pallets were disposed of in a county landfill until 1981; the company reportedly then began drumming waste resin mixtures and storing them on site (1). However, a former employee reported to ATSDR he helped dispose of "wastes" off site at Bernard Bayou in the mid-1970s. This report suggests multiple disposal methods have existed at the site. In 1988, EPA observed several open drums stacked on their sides containing a white, waxy material and labeled as containing waste paraffin. Past inspections and records indicate that drummed wastes include a resin mixture that contains polycyclopentadiene, polyhexadiene, polystyrene, and polyvinyl toluene (1). Chemfax advised ATSDR that process byproducts now are being recycled into "lower grade" products and sold. ATSDR representatives saw the recycle process system and the associated drums and stacks of byproduct material to be recycled.

In 1988, during an EPA inspection, an unknown white liquid was observed leaking from a railroad tanker onto the ground (1). ATSDR representatives observed dark patches of soil beside several tanks, suggesting that tank cars or tanks have leaked or that chemicals have spilled on the ground during processing or transfer operations.

B. Site Visit

Messrs. Don Gibeaut and Bob Safay of ATSDR and William Gilliland and Mark Walters of Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality visited the site on November 30, 1993. Appropriate sections of this document describe pertinent information the ATSDR representatives obtained during the visit.

C. Land Use, Demographics, and Natural Resources

Land Use

During the site visit, ATSDR representatives observed that the area immediately surrounding Chemfax is predominantly commercial and industrial. An asphalt paving company, two metal fabrication facilities, and a gas station operate on adjacent properties--contained between US 49, County Barn Road, Three Rivers Road, and Creosote Road (Figure 1). A mental health complex (present since 1983) and a county road department facility are north of the property, across County Barn Road. Predominantly light industrial, fabricating, and manufacturing activities were seen to the east and northeast on both sides of the Industrial Seaway; four small chemical processing facilities are present about ½ mile to the northeast, on the south side of Seaway Road. A second asphalt paving company is about mile southwest of Chemfax. ATSDR is aware of four facilities in the area that report air emissions to EPA: Arizona Chemicals, about 3½ miles east of Chemfax; Treated Material Company and Avon Industries, about 1½ miles east; and Indal Aluminum, about 2½ miles south (3). A large commercial and shopping area is south of Creosote Road on both sides of US 49. EPA has told ATSDR of several sites in the vicinity that are included in the CERCLIS database. The nearest was a chemical plant that formerly operated at a location about ½ mile to the northeast. Another is a former wood treating plant about 1 mile east of the property. ATSDR observed that the nearest residence is about mile east, on Creosote Road. A total of 5 homes are within about ½ mile to the east on Creosote Road and about 20 more are to the southeast between ½ and ¾ miles away. Large residential areas begin about ¾ mile to the north, northeast, and south of Chemfax.

ATSDR identified schools within 2 miles of Chemfax: Bellaire Elementary and Harrison Central 9th Grade Schools, a little more than ½ mile north; Harrison Central Elementary and Orange Grove Middle Schools, about 1½ miles northwest; and North Gulfport Elementary, about 1½ mile south. School officials indicate that Bayou View Junior High and Bayou View Elementary Schools are about 2½ miles southeast. No hospitals or nursing homes are near the site.

Demographics

In 1991, Chemfax had 57 workers (1); in 1993, ATSDR learned the work force was 35. ATSDR representative's discussions with staff of nearby businesses, along with supplemental observations, indicate an estimated 500 to 600 persons are employed within ¼ mile of Chemfax. An ATSDR investigator was told the mental health complex on County Barn Road has a capacity of 43 adult residents; the maximum stay is 30 days. ATSDR observed no homes within mile of the site. EPA estimates the population out to 1 mile from the site is 2,200 (1).

Natural Resources Use

Groundwater

Chemfax uses an industrial well for its cooling water supply (1). Alpine also had an industrial well. ATSDR representatives learned from Chemfax staff that the company used a separate on-site well for potable water until August 1978, when the facility was connected to a public water system. ATSDR's discussions with water companies serving the area indicate that groundwater is the source for public systems and for some private well users in the area. The nearest public wells include one nearly a mile northeast, one a mile north, and additional wells located about two miles away to the southwest, south, and southeast (4). Water company representatives showed ATSDR 12 locations within ¾ mile where residents, a church, and businesses do not have service connections; those locations probably rely on private wells for water supply. The nearest such residence is about mile from the property, and the nearest business is adjacent to Chemfax. EPA reports that five of those residences (about mile east) have their own wells. EPA also reports there are eight homes with private wells within a 1-mile band, between 2 miles and 3 miles from Chemfax (1).

Surface Water

Three narrow ditches on the property receive surface runoff and discharge into Bernard Bayou, which is north of the site. The principal ditch flows northward through the central part of the property and contains two very small holding ponds. Bernard Bayou flows east-southeast. East of Three Rivers Road, a segment of the bayou has been channeled (the Industrial Seaway). The seaway and segments of the bayou farther downstream flow into Big Lake and then into Back Bay of Biloxi. No surface water intakes are present along this route; however, some recreational fishing, boating, and swimming take place (1). Back Bay, in turn, connects to Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. During the site visit, ATSDR representatives observed a fisherman on Bernard Bayou at Three Rivers Road.

D. Health Outcome Data

Government agencies routinely collect information on the health of the people within their jurisdiction. The federal government collects general health information on the entire nation. Many state health departments keep registries of illnesses and diseases. Some county and local health departments also routinely or periodically collect health information. Concerned citizens and citizen action groups may also collect health information. This section describes the health databases that hold this information. The Public Health Implications section discusses how these databases might relate to the Chemfax site. The available health databases are discussed below.

The state keeps vital health statistics and records on disease incidence. Incidence is the number of new cases of a health outcome in a year for a specific population. The city and county collect birth and death data and information on disease incidence, and information is available from 1980 to 1992. In addition, the state operates a sick children's medical program. The children's medical program serves patients, mostly from poor communities, from birth to age 21. Summary data and information for the nine public health districts in the state of Mississippi are available for years 1991, 1992, and 1993.

COMMUNITY HEALTH CONCERNS

On November 30, 1993, ATSDR staff members held two availability meetings to gather community concerns. An ATSDR press release announced the availability meetings.

Residents and officials attending the public availability meetings raised the following health-related concerns:

  1. Intermittent chemical odors at their residences and in the vicinities of Bellaire and Harrison Central 9th Grade Schools and Orange Grove Elementary School;

  2. Headaches, sinus, and hearing disorders and memory loss;

  3. Leukemia, breast cancer, and other cancers;

  4. Respiratory problems including asthma;

  5. One resident's long -term blood platelet disorder that the physician said is related to exposure to benzene from the site; and

  6. Water quality in the Industrial Seaway and other surface water.

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