Baring the Facts on the Dresser Mess

“There is no ‘safe’ dose of a carcinogen.” – Rachel Carson, "Silent Spring"

Imagine receiving a letter from the state, telling you “Environmental contamination has been detected in the vicinity of your property/residence.”

That’s what has happened to dozens of residents and business owners around the intersection of U.S. Highway 167 and LA 3225 just outside the Pineville city limits.

The letters arrived in the second week of January, on official letterhead from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and bearing the names of Secretary Chuck Carr Brown and Gov. John Bel Edwards. They explain the problem derives from the now-shuttered Dresser Industries facility, which used – and left behind – industrial solvents, which have contaminated the soil and groundwater with both trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene.

The notifications say Dresser, through contracts with several environmental consulting companies, is “carrying out an investigation,” and make reference to “soil gas sampling” and “indoor air sampling” being conducted.

DEQ followed up with a public information meeting, held Monday, Feb. 10, in the Rapides Parish Police Jury chambers. It was standing-room-only, as concerned citizens from the potentially-affected neighborhoods came to ask questions and learn more.

The Dresser Company got its start in 1880, after Solomon Robert Dresser of Bradford, Pennsylvania, patented a rubber packer for pipes, followed by inventing a rubber coupling that would prevent natural gas pipes from leaking where they were joined. By 1927, the company had annual sales of $3.7-million, and in 1928 it went public. Dresser acquired firms that manufactured allied oil and gas equipment, and in 1950, as Dresser Industries, moved its headquarters to Dallas. Dresser opened its valve manufacturing facility in Pineville, Louisiana, in 1961.

Dresser Industries acquired International Harvester’s construction equipment division in 1982, and then just at the trough of the late 1980s oil price downturn, Dresser merged with Ingersoll-Rand. In 1998, Dresser merged with Halliburton, its main rival. That $7.7-billion deal was widely reported as being negotiated by Dick Cheney, then with Halliburton, during a quail-hunting expedition. (This predated Cheney’s infamous 2006 quail-hunting junket, when the then U.S. Vice President accidentally shot Texas attorney Harry Whittington.)

Subsequent to that merger, Halliburton was forced to put up $30-billion to settle asbestos lawsuits – its own, and the ones Dresser brought with it, including the landmark Bell v. Dresser Industries. Halliburton’s stock value fell 80%, and in April 2001, Dresser separated itself from Halliburton, becoming Dresser, Inc.

In 2011, Dresser, Inc. was acquired by General Electric Corporation, becoming part of GE’s Oil and Gas Division. The precipitous plunge in oil prices which began in June 2014 ultimately led to closure of the Pineville facility in 2016. Dresser, which had been part of the central Louisiana manufacturing economy since 1961, employing as many as 400 workers, informed the state in July 2016 it would permanently layoff its 289 workers by the end of that year. By September 2016, Dresser announced it would be moving the remnants of its Pineville manufacturing operation to Jacksonville, Florida. Then in 2017, GE Oil and Gas, including Dresser, merged with Baker-Hughes, which now owns the Pineville property.

Residents of the Aurora Park Subdivision, across U.S. Highway 167 from the Dresser site, were the majority of the locals attending the February 10th show-and tell session put on by the state’s environmental agency, and DEQ personnel endeavored to reassure the residents that “Your drinking water is safe.” This, despite the notification letter stating the “investigation has revealed groundwater contamination, and more recently, soil gas contamination.”

John Ellis, a geologist with the contractor Baker-Hughes has hired to monitor the property, was less absolute and more candid about the contamination.

“There are approximately 60 wells in and around the facility,” Ellis said. “We are still collecting data today, as we are trying to figure out exactly where it is. We know where the majority of it is, but we are chasing little areas in certain places.”

Trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene are the two most dangerous “its” found on and around the former Dresser Industries facility, but they didn’t just appear following closure of the valve assembly plant in the fall of 2016. The location has been listed as “Site 2920” in Louisiana DEQ records since sometime in 2012. That’s when Dresser finally reported a spill which had occurred in 2011. DEQ reports on the contamination give different narratives of the source of the contamination. The first comprehensive investigation report, issued in September 2014, says a pipe broke in 2012.

That 506-page report is a classic example of using environmental regulatory officialese to disguise the full magnitude and health dangers of spilling these chemical compounds.

What do I mean by that? Petrochemical industries and the environmental agencies that regulate them know that ABCs seem innocent and harmless. Using monogram acronyms for the overall category of chemicals to which a specific compound belongs provides multiple layers of obfuscation. It does not name a specific chemical, just the initials of the family it belongs within.

The 2014 report on Dresser report when a pipe broke in 2012, it spilled chemicals referred to as “TPH-OROs” (total petroleum hydrocarbons-oil range organics), and the spill was subsequently reported to the Department of Environmental Quality. One well was dug for monitoring the movement of the chemicals through the soil and groundwater. Then three more monitoring wells were installed, to monitor what was referred to as TPH (total petroleum hydrocarbons), VPH (volatile petroleum hydrocarbons), EPH (extractable petroleum hydrocarbons) and TDS (total dissolved solids). Additionally, the report states, groundwater was sampled for TPH-GRO (total petroleum hydrocarbons – gasoline range organics), TPH-DRO (total petroleum hydrocarbons – diesel range organics), TPH-ORO (total petroleum hydrocarbons – oil range organics), EPH and VPH (extractable petroleum hydrocarbons and volatile petroleum hydrocarbons).

In June 2013, three more monitoring wells were installed, and in July, samples from five of the seven wells “showed elevated concentrations of VOCs” (volatile organic compounds) in groundwater. (Still with the alphabetic acronyms, not saying specifically WTF the chemicals are!)

In February 2014, they drilled “temporary” wells into the shallow sand aquifer, discovered contaminants there, and “Drilling terminated to avoid pulling impacts into deeper layers.” In April 2014, four more permanent monitoring wells were drilled “to determine groundwater flow direction.” If you’re keeping score, that’s a total of eleven monitoring wells installed by spring of 2014.

And although they’re still using acronyms, this is the point at which the information finally becomes specific. Test results from April 2014 state: “Concentrations of TCE exceeded the GWss (groundwater sample standards = 0.005mg/L) in fifteen samples. The maximum reported concentration was 52 mg/L.” TCE is trichloroethylene, and the concentration found was more than 10,000 times the allowable level.

In May 2014, ten of the samples taken from the monitoring wells exceeded allowable levels for TCE, with a maximum concentration at 87 mg/L, or 17,400 times the allowed level. Additionally, “TCE and its daughter compounds are detected above GWss in wells along the east property boundary.” U.S. 167 forms that property boundary line.

According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC), trichloroethylene is a sweet-smelling, colorless, volatile liquid degreasing solvent. It easily evaporates into the atmosphere when in use or when modest amounts are spilled onto soil or surface water. However, it is extremely mobile in soil and extremely persistent once it gets into groundwater.

In fact, the public health warnings for TCE say “While you may be exposed by breathing trichloroethylene, you are most likely to be exposed to trichloroethylene by drinking trichloroethylene-contaminated water.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have each classified it as “known to be a human carcinogen,” as there is strong evidence that it can cause kidney cancer, liver cancer, and/or malignant lymphoma (a blood cancer).

Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality documents for Site 2920 include an “Additional Groundwater Plan”, filed June 29, 2015. That document has a different version of when and how the contamination began. It states site assessment commenced in 2012, “following observation of an oily sheen on ponded water during repair of a fire suppression system in November 2011.”

The 2015 plan proposed drilling another eight to ten monitoring wells, with some of them requiring approvals from DOTD (the state Department of Transportation) because they encroached on the U.S. 167 easements. And, as we now know from the most recent public meeting about the contamination, in the five years since, the number of monitoring wells has swollen to 60.

The contaminants found also include tetrachloroethylene, which is used in dry-cleaning, as well as a metal degreasing solvent. It evaporates quickly from soil and water, but is persistent as an atmospheric contaminant. It is listed as a “likely carcinogen,” with some evidence that – like its sister compound TCE – it can cause liver, kidney, and blood cancers, as well as bladder cancer, multiple myeloma, or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

So even though DEQ held a public meeting eight to nine years after a spill and almost four years after an industry shut down, and even though there are all these wells monitoring this cancer-causing stuff that is in the groundwater, you can trust that “your drinking water is safe.” Nothing to fear here.

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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.