KERRS CREEK — Two state agencies investigated a sawmill in Rockbridge County last year for spilling chemicals on the ground, but as of this month the company has yet to correct the problem.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality finished its report in December and the company, American Hardwood Industries, proposed to correct the problems by the end of July.
The dripping of pesticides and anti-mold products continues. And it’s one of several cases of environmental enforcement issues involving American Hardwood Industries operations in Virginia.
The Rockbridge County violations stem from a dip tank where crews place freshly cut wooden boards in bundles on a fork and lower them into chemicals to prevent mold growth and pests. After a few minutes, the boards are lifted and allowed to drain for at least 10 minutes, according to documents from DEQ.
Employees unload the bundles from the dip tank with a front end loader and take them to an outdoor storage area. But as soon as the bundles are removed, a “significant amount” of the chemicals drain out of both ends of the stack and onto the ground, according to an email between DEQ inspector Noel Thomas and a staff member from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which completed its own investigation in November.
“With the lumber in stacks, dip chemical is held within the stacks and does not sufficiently drain,” Thomas wrote. “The storage area next to the dip tanks where the lumber finishes drying is not protected from stormwater exposure and subject to runoff of the chemical onto the ground.”
The tank contains a brightener and two other chemicals — Kop-Coat Workhorse Sapstain and Mold Control Product and Kop-Coat Iron FixT 1000 — diluted with water. The two mold and pesticide products come with extensive warnings about skin burns and irreversible eye damage.
The Kop-Coat product’s label also states that lumber should not be exposed to water and advises companies to store lumber in an area protected from rain.
“This pesticide is toxic to fish,” the label warns. “Do not apply directly to water. … Do not discharge effluent containing this product into lakes, streams, ponds, estuaries, oceans or other waters.”
So far, no fish kills have been documented near the company’s sawmills.
DEQ staff visited American Hardwood’s Rockbridge County sawmill in September 2018 and watched the facility treat its freshly cut lumber with the products. DEQ sent the company a warning letter the following Dec. 10 that required it to stop, contain and clean up spills of the dip chemicals and improve its plan to prevent stormwater pollution.
The company responded Jan. 30 that it would clean up the spills and requested an extension to draw up plans for new containment areas. In April, it sent a plan to DEQ that said it would increase the roof cover over the dip tank area and would pour concrete under the roof that would slope to a collection point.
Freshly dipped boards would be kept under cover and on concrete where they can dry, according to an email from the company’s general manager Amyas Player to Thomas.
Construction on the dip tank covers and outdoor storage areas had yet to begin when DEQ inspectors visited the facility Aug. 8.
Almost a year after DEQ’s initial inspection, dip tank chemicals are still being poured onto the ground.
DEQ referred the company to its enforcement division. Thomas said in an interview that the department is still working internally on its next steps, which includes meeting with American Hardwood to create an enforceable schedule of improvements.
The Roanoke Times requested documents from DEQ and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services going back at least five years.
These documents revealed a sawmill in Warm Springs, owned by the same company, faced a problem with dip tank chemicals last year.
And at least three other American Hardwood sawmills in Virginia had pollution prevention issues with DEQ or the Environmental Protection Agency.
The company is required to control runoff from its Rockbridge County property, which drains to Ford Run, a tributary of Kerrs Creek, which flows into the Maury River. The EPA established the area as part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and in 2010 created a “total maximum daily load,” which limits the amount of pollutants a body of water can receive and still meet water quality standards.
Facilities located in the watershed are required to monitor and control pollutants that could be present in their stormwater runoff.
DEQ’s inspection of the Rockbridge facility revealed the company was not following all of the requirements related to its stormwater pollution prevention plan. A compliance evaluation, required once a year, had not been conducted since 2016. That 2016 evaluation showed multiple deficiencies, but no corrective actions were documented.
Employees had not received stormwater training, a yearly requirement, since 2016. And the site’s preventative maintenance log had not been updated in close to two years.
Thomas, the inspector with DEQ, said the department performs routine inspections of all sawmills with stormwater industrial permits. The department has a rotating schedule, but also picks places to inspect that may have a higher risk. Additionally, the department investigates if a complaint is received.
Thomas said the dip tank problem seen at the Rockbridge County sawmill was new. Going forward, DEQ plans to observe dip tank procedures at all sawmills to ensure the same problem isn’t happening elsewhere.
“We’re definitely going to be looking for this as we do our inspections,” he said. “You don’t see evidence on the ground so it’s not obvious unless you’re standing there when they’re moving these around.”
American Hardwood Industries said in a statement that the company had contracted with a local builder for the new dip tank construction and expects to have it completed in six to eight weeks.
The statement emphasized the July 31 date was only a proposal, and that while they were exchanging emails with DEQ clarifying the department’s expectations, the date had passed.
“We have been and continue to be in discussions with DEQ, we have a very good working relationship with our local offices of the VA DEQ, built on mutual trust and respect for one another’s jobs and responsibility,” the company’s statement read. “We welcome their involvement, advice and expertise.”
Neighbor keeps eye on sawmill
John Fix’s father built a house on Fredericksburg Road, about 9 miles north of Lexington, in 1959. Fix, 55, has lived there since the day he was born, he said.
When a sawmill opened directly across the street around 1972, the Fixes didn’t mind. It started as a log yard and after a few years started cutting lumber. It was a small, family owned operation and didn’t cause much of a disturbance.
Augusta Lumber bought the property in 2010. The company, which is a subsidiary of American Hardwood Industries, is a global operation. Augusta Lumber, which is headquartered in Waynesboro, is one of the world’s largest producers of pre-finished plank flooring and produces more than 60 million board feet of lumber annually, according to its website.
Augusta Lumber operates five sawmills and one concentration yard in Virginia. American Hardwood Industries is owned by Baillie Lumber, which operates in multiple states and ships products overseas.
When Fix retired in 2014, he started noticing the disturbances more and more. He opposed the company’s application to operate on Sundays, which the county approved in 2017. Then the mill droned six days a week, and on Sundays, employees did maintenance, repairs and installations.
“I’d like to live a quiet, peaceful life,” Fix said. “I’d like to hear a bird chirping or a bee buzzing instead of this.”
The dust, which Fix attributes to the sawmill across the street, became unbearable. His porch is coated in a layer of dust. If he opens his windows, his living room couches, cabinets and Frédéric Chopin records get dusted over, too, he said.
Eventually, Fix started watching the sawmill operations. Then he started taking pictures. And then he started complaining. First to the county, where he got little response, he said.
Chris Slaydon, assistant director of community development, said the county zoning department may have a process to address pollution, but it’s best handled by state agencies. Otherwise, the county can only enforce what’s in the company’s special exception permit, which stipulates what days and times the sawmill can operate, requires it to maintain the landscaping, instructs operators to use directional lighting and requires the company to water down the log yard to control dust.
The county found the company in violation of the permit when it failed to control dust in September 2017 after a complaint from Fix. American Hardwood appealed the violation to the Rockbridge County Board of Zoning Appeals, stating that the permit requires it to “control” the dust, not eliminate it. The board sided with the zoning department.
In 2017 and 2018, trucks dragged mud from the mill onto the highway. Fix sent photos to DEQ of the tracking and the dust and they contacted American Hardwood Industries.
The company’s president, John O’Dea, replied after the 2017 incident and said the company takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. He said it hired a full-time environmental scientist in 2014 whose sole responsibility is to make sure the company conforms to the law.
O’Dea said in the email that he met Fix at his home to try to accommodate him and his concerns about the sawmill.
“Unfortunately, I believe Mr. Fix is using the DEQ’s scarce resources to harass us by proxy,” O’Dea wrote. “Please note that in no way am I accusing DEQ of harassing us. Your inspection revealed substantive issues that we have and will address. … At this point we are fully accepting of our obligations as they exist in law and our permit, but cannot sign up to anything that continues the appeasement policy towards Mr. Fix, as it’s a toxic path that will only lead to evermore harassment and more waste of time and resources.”
Last year, Fix saw some of the chemically treated boards dripping onto the ground and filmed it. And later he saw boards developing foam after they had been rained on.
Those boards were loaded onto a truck, and as it drove away, foam went flying into the air and onto the side of the road. So, he called DEQ again and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ pesticide division, which triggered the most recent investigations.
An investigator with the agriculture department visited Fix’s home Nov. 8 and collected soil samples from his property and public land near the sawmill. The inspector also took swabs of a parked car, the siding of Fix’s carport, the second-story front porch and a barbecue grill.
The inspector sent the samples to a lab in Richmond for analysis, but it didn’t reveal any pesticides had traveled off-site, so the department ruled the company did not violate the Virginia Pesticide Control Act.
However, DEQ’s investigation last year revealed the company did violate the State Water Control Law.
Fix said he started all of this for personal reasons. An assessor depreciated his property $49,200 because of its proximity to the sawmill. And his water tank has such a high level of standing solids that he was advised not to drink it three years ago.
His grandson, who is just shy of his first birthday, never visits the house because Fix is concerned about what chemicals might be present there.
Fix wants to see the sawmill shut down.
“I was here first,” Fix said. “I’m overlooking my personal problems and I want to make this better for my whole community as well as my county as well as my state.”
Complaint in Bath County
A citizen in Warm Springs contacted DEQ on April 24, 2018, and said there was foam coming from the nearby sawmill and flowing into Warm Springs Run just two and a half miles before it converged with the Jackson River.
DEQ inspector Thomas visited the Bath County sawmill the next day and finalized his report about a month later. The report said the sawmill had been dipping and storing more lumber because of a fire at another facility. The report confirmed that stormwater washed the dip chemical from the lumber and caused the foam.
Once the lumber is taken out of the dip tank, Thomas wrote, it’s moved to an open area and wax is applied to the ends of the boards. Once the wax is on, the boards are left to dry before they’re moved to a different storage area and shipped out. The wax application area also is exposed to rain.
“Overspray is evident all around the area,” the report reads. “Small pools of white liquid were visible.”
Thomas reviewed a routine inspection of the facility that was completed on May 1, 2014. The company had submitted a response that it was researching controls for the wax spray area to include a sloping concrete basin and an open-sided roofed area with a concrete floor. The company expected it would be installed before Dec. 31, 2014.
But no controls had been added at the time of Thomas’ inspection four years later.
Thomas also reviewed the facility inspection the sawmill completed itself on March 20, 2018. It marked “no” under the column for the wax spraying concrete containment area being cleaned on a routine basis. But the facility did not have a concrete containment area. The report also marked “yes” for good housekeeping procedures, but also checked “no” for whether the dams and ponds preventing runoff had been cleaned of excess sedimentation.
Thomas said the problems at Warm Springs were referred to the department’s enforcement division immediately because of the unauthorized foam discharge. He said when a company is referred to the enforcement division it usually includes a monetary penalty. The mill at Warm Springs is currently in the process of developing its consent order with DEQ staff, Thomas said.
An email from DEQ staff to the sawmill’s management said the penalty would be reduced because of the “minimal environmental damage and (the company’s) timely implementation of corrective best management practices.”
Elsewhere in Virginia
Violations at American Hardwood facilities date to at least 2014 when the EPA issued a report following an inspection of the company’s sawmill in North Garden, a community southwest of Charlottesville in Albemarle County.
The report said the sawmill failed to include all the necessary components in its stormwater pollution prevention plan, did not conduct site compliance evaluations and did not stop nonstormwater discharges at the facility. The EPA fined the company $68,000 .
Another mill owned by American Hardwood Industries near Amissville in Rappahannock County routinely has levels of total suspended solids that are higher than allowed. The main outfall, where stormwater is discharged, is allowed to have 100 milligrams of total suspended solids per liter. In December 2014, it had 266 milligrams. In May 2015 it had 857 milligrams, in June 2015 it had 756 milligrams and in December 2015 it had 3,250 milligrams.
In 2017, DEQ sent the company two warning letters — one for not sending its discharge monitoring reports and another for failing to send the annual report describing how it will reduce discharges.
A third sawmill in Culpeper County was visited by DEQ in February 2018 after a citizen complained about mud and debris being dragged into the roadway from trucks leaving the property. The same person complained again this February.
DEQ looked into both complaints and closed both reports because the issue was not under its jurisdiction. Instead, the person contacted the Virginia Department of Transportation, the state police and the county.
In its statement, American Hardwood Industries said it takes state and federal regulations seriously.
“Located in the midst of the 65+ million acres of the Appalachian Hardwood Forest, every day our employees see the source of the raw materials they use,” the statement says.
“We hike in and around our communities and forests. We camp in them, we bike in them, we hunt in them, we fish in them, and we find comfort in them. Our abundant natural resources provide us not only our livelihood, they are an inspiring venue for our neighbors and visitors and cannot be squandered.”