The Vertac site in Jacksonville (Pulaski County) is one of the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites and Arkansas’s most publicized Superfund site. Cleanup of the area after its abandonment by its corporate owner took more than a decade, and the name “Vertac” soon became synonymous in Arkansas with the fear of industrial pollution, similar to how New Yorkers view Love Canal.
The Vertac site was originally part of the Arkansas Ordnance Plant (AOP), a World War II–era facility that manufactured various components of explosive devices, such as primers and detonators. In 1946, the federal government offered the AOP facilities for sale to private companies. The future Vertac site was purchased in 1948 by Reasor-Hill Company, which produced pesticides, as did the Hercules Powder Company, which bought the facility in 1961. Both of these companies manufactured the now-banned DDT, as well as 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4,5-T (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid). Ten years after purchasing the facility, Hercules Powder Company began leasing the site to Transvaal, Inc., which bought the site in 1976 but filed for bankruptcy only two years later. In 1978, Vertac Chemical Corporation of Memphis, Tennessee, obtained the site.
The same year that the Vertac company began its tenure in Jacksonville, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the sale of herbicide 2,4,5-T, though it continued allowing the use of the chemical on rice fields. (Agent Orange, the defoliant used widely by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, was equal parts 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T.) A byproduct of 2,4,5-T production is dioxins—extremely toxic chemicals linked to cancer, disorders of the nervous system, miscarriages, birth defects, spina bifida, and more. The city of Times Beach, Missouri, was evacuated in the early 1980s after federal investigators found high levels of dioxin in the city’s soil and water. More notorious was the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York, which was the site of a chemical dump for Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation; these chemicals seeped into the surrounding area and caused an outbreak of cancers, birth defects, and other health problems. President Jimmy Carter eventually declared the Love Canal area a state of emergency, and all residents were evacuated. The publicity these disasters received—along with Kentucky’s “Valley of the Drums,” described widely as “the nation’s poster child for industrial negligence”—led in 1980 to the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund law. Created to deal with abandoned sites of industrial pollution, CERCLA taxed and fined companies to recover clean-up costs and established containment procedures for such intensively polluted sites.
Both Hercules and Vertac had buried an untold number of dioxin-contaminated drums at the Jacksonville site. In 1979, the EPA investigated the Vertac site and found numerous drums releasing hazardous chemicals into the environment. The Arkansas Department of Pollution Control and Ecology (ADPC&E), later the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), forbade Vertac from continuing the manufacture of the very profitable 2,4,5-T and required the company to improve its practices of disposing of hazardous wastes. The discovery later that year of traces of dioxin in fish in a nearby creek led the EPA and the ADPC&E jointly to sue both Vertac and Hercules, and federal Judge Henry Woods ordered Vertac to prevent the spread of dioxin in the surrounding environment, most notably by constructing a wall around its waste pond. A 1979 article in Life magazine dubbed Jacksonville a “poisoned town.” After tests on June 9, 1985, the EPA warned local residents that local water wells were contaminated with dioxin. Meanwhile, still forbidden from manufacturing 2,4,5-T, Vertac began laying off employees through the next few years.
Jacksonville residents frequently received conflicting information about the level of contamination in their community. After further testing of local wells on July 11, 1985, the EPA retracted its earlier claim of dioxin contamination, citing potential laboratory errors for the initial report. Three years later, the EPA completely downgraded its assessment of dioxin’s toxicity, a decision that came under serious criticism, especially given other recently published studies on the detrimental effects of dioxin upon the immune system and its link with cancer. The EPA’s 1985 and 1988 retraction of previous dioxin claims did not help to stave off financial troubles for Vertac, however, and the company abandoned its Jacksonville site in 1987, declaring bankruptcy and leaving behind nearly 29,000 drums of chemical wastes, many already corroding; some 15,000 of these had been left outside, exposed to the elements. Sandy Davis and Bobbi Ridlehoover of the Arkansas Democrat interviewed workers and residents in the 1980s and 1990s, publishing the findings of their investigations.
The EPA declared the Vertac site a Superfund site and initiated the cleanup and containment process. The initial plan decided upon by the EPA and ADPC&E was to incinerate the waste at the Vertac site, but this met with opposition by local residents, some of whom filed a lawsuit in 1989 to prevent the incineration from taking place. Some of the first tests of this process were beset by technical problems, leading the ADPC&E to halt incineration for a while in 1991. Four separate legal actions to halt the incineration were eventually decided in the government’s favor, and by late 1994 more than 23,000 drums had been burned; the remainder was shipped to Coffeyville, Kansas, for incineration. After the incineration, the EPA proceeded to carry out clean-up on contaminated soil and destroy the remaining industrial structures.
On September 1, 1998, the city of Jacksonville marked the official end of the site’s cleanup, which cost more than $150 million. However, many residents continued to believe that not enough had been done to secure their safety. On April 23, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court, after years of litigation, let stand a lower court ruling that held Hercules responsible for $120 million of the clean-up costs. By slipping into receivership, the Vertac company evaded any responsibility for the damages. The site is listed as safe by the EPA, but the legacy of industrial waste remains with the location and with the entire city of Jacksonville.
In 2000, the city acquired the northern section of the property, with a Superfund Redevelopment Initiative Pilot grant enabling reuse of the site. Site reuses include a recycling center, office space, storage, a fire department training facility, a driver training pad, a recycling education park, and a police firing range. Construction also began on a new police and fire training center, police department facilities, and an emergency operations center and community safe room for use during severe weather.
For additional information:
Ault, Larry. “Ceremony to Mark End of Vertac Waste Cleanup.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 30, 2008, pp. 1B, 3B.
Clamp, Mark D. “Dealing with Dioxin: The Case of Vertac.” Pulaski County Historical Review 48 (Spring 2000): 2–8.
Ridlehoover, Bobbi. “Agency May Renew Vertac Permit Without Testing.” Arkansas Democrat, June 29, 1983, p. 5B.
———. “Despite Grim Scene, EPA Making Progress.” Arkansas Democrat, August 9, 1987, pp. 1B, 5B.
———. “Landfill Worker Ill, Another Dead.” Arkansas Democrat, February 4, 1983, pp. 1A, 5A.
Satter, Linda. “Suit over Vertac Not Finished Yet.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 20, 2012, pp. 1B, 8B.
———. “U.S. Justices Let Vertac Tab Stand.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 24, 2007, pp. 1B, 6B.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “On-Site Incineration at the Vertac Chemical Corporation Superfund Site, Jacksonville, Arkansas.” http://clu-in.org/download/remed/incpdf/vertac.pdf (accessed December 28, 2020).
———. Record of Decision–Vertac Superfund Site. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1996.
“Vertac Superfund Site.” Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/region6/6sf/pdffiles/vertac-ar.pdf (accessed December 28, 2020).
Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
Last Updated: 12/28/2020