The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Monday, 30 October 2023 12:25

Waste at Smokey Mountain Smelters finally sealed

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EPA’s Peter Johnson addressed the cleanup efforts and some general ideas of what will come next in a recent YouTube video uploaded Monday, Oct. 23.

EPA consolidated toxic South Knoxville smelter refuse in single on-site landfill.

KNOXVILLE — The Smokey Mountain Smelters site is in the Vestal Community at 1508 Maryville Pike near Montgomery Village Apartments.

“We are excited to announce the cleanup at Smokey Mountain Smelters has been completed,” EPA remedial project manager Peter Johnson said.

From the 1920s through the 1960s, agricultural and chemical companies operated at the site before Smokey Mountain Smelters, also known as Rotary Furnace Inc., came to the location in 1979. The company melted scrap aluminum and aluminum dross together to cast the byproduct into aluminum bars. These operations continued until 1994.

Johnson has said in other talks the dross and saltcakes left over from the process react with water, releasing heat and ammonia gas. They leach aluminum, ammonia, chloride “and many other contaminants,” he said. Smokey Mountain Smelting’s toxins have flowed through groundwater into a tributary of Flenniken Branch, causing concerns about effects on fishing.

In 2010 the EPA placed the site on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List (NPL) because of contaminated soils, sediment and surface water resulting from past industrial operations at the site. The EPA did some cleanup work in 2010 and 2011.


This year’s round of cleanup work started with funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Lawfunding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Joe Biden on Nov. 12, 2021. The EPA used about $2.6 million in federal funds provided by that law to clean the site between February and September of 2023.

Workers consolidated about 20,000 cubic yards of waste into one waste pile. Then they covered it with a gas collection layer, two types of synthetic liners, a drainage layer and six inches of soil. The EPA then planted grass on top.

Johnson said drainage ditches along the landfill’s boundary divert local surface water runoff and prevent erosion.

The site has three parcels. Caleb Properties LLC has purchased two of them. 

“While the details of the development are not yet known, we have been in conversation with the new owners, and they have committed to a community benefit,” Johnson said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to work with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) and new property owners regarding the required institutional controls and ongoing operation and maintenance. 5-year reviews will be conducted in perpetuity to insure this cleanup continues to be protective of human health and the environment.

What was done earlier to clean up the site?

The EPA led the site investigation and cleanup activities in cooperation with TDEC. This is a timeline of the actions: 

The State of Tennessee’s Division of Solid Waste Management issued a notice to Smokey Mountain Smelters after concluding the site was “unsuitable for use as an industrial landfill.” Landfilling continued to occur on site for several years and the Knox County Department for Air Pollution Control documented numerous citizen complaints regarding excessive air emissions from the site and cited Smokey Mountain Smelters for air quality violations in the 1980s.

EPA and TDEC executed a removal action removing materials and capping landfill materials in place with an interim cap.

EPA has taken short-term cleanup actions to stop immediate threats. These actions include repairing the fence, removing a portion of the on-site waste, capping the remaining on-site waste piles with one foot of compacted clay and six inches of topsoil, and planting the capped areas with grass.

2008 – 2011
In 2008, EPA repaired the fence surrounding the site.

In 2010, EPA demolished vacant on-site buildings.

In 2011, EPA removed a portion of on-site waste and capped the rest.

EPA issued a cleanup plan in 2015 to address remaining contamination.

EPA completed a remedial design in April and negotiated with responsible parties to conduct cleanup.

The potentially responsible parties investigation and negotiations by the Department of Justice were completed, and the Smokey Mountain Smelters became a Fund Lead site, meaning that the funds required will come from the federal government through EPA. 

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Last modified on Tuesday, 31 October 2023 12:23