The toxic problem in the Eppsteiner Strasse

For the past week, one of the main topics of discussion in Oberursel has centered around a small piece of land in the Eppsteiner Straße, hidden away behind houses 11 and 13.

The land, which has been owned by the town itself since the 1970s, was once home to a company that cleaned out barrels there.  Whatever they did, it apparently resulted in the ground being contaminated with a cocktail of chemicals, collectively known as “lightly volatile halogenated hydrocarbons”, abbreviated in German as LHKWs.

This all lay undiscovered until 2002, when tests were being carried out in the area to find a new water supply.  On finding contaminated water, the problem was traced back to the Eppsteiner Straße and this very same piece of land.

Eppsteiner Strasse 11-13

Eppsteiner Strasse 11 (right) and 13 (left), behind which the yard is situated

Over the following years, plans were drawn up and methods considered of how to get the poisonous substances back out of the ground.

One way would have been to simply dig up the earth and take it to the treatment works at Flörsheim.  However it was discovered that a hole 15 metres deep would need to be dug to get all of the contaminated earth out.  Not only would the hole need to be covered over to avoid contamination with the air, one estimate suggested that 10 of the surrounding houses would have been affected as well.  The plan would also have resulted in a considerable amount of heavy goods vehicle traffic through the town centre in order to carry the earth away.

And so a different method was chosen.  Having removed the top layer of soil, a method of steam-injection is being used to remove the chemicals from the earth.  Basically, steam is fed into the earth where it captures the chemicals and is then sucked back out again.

According to the statements coming from the town hall, local residents were not only informed, they were also offered medical check-ups and observation as well as air monitors being installed in their houses, with all the data being collated by the University in Gießen.

The only hitch until last week, was that the amount of chemicals to be removed turned out to be much larger than estimated.  600kg has already been removed, more than previously estimated for the entire project.  Now that estimate is placed at 8 tonnes!

However last week, the local BUND group (the German branch of “Friends of the Earth”) produced a dossier which made a number of claims about how the town had handled the project, with some of them aimed directly at individuals in the town hall.

They argue, for example, that only the first 30cm of soil was removed, where as the town’s administration say it was 1m and that they have the documentary evidence for its disposal.

More seriously, they also claim that one family, who ran a shop in one of the buildings, became ill after breathing in contaminated steam coming from their cellar, and that rather than being informed of the problem on the neighbouring piece of land, they only became aware of it in 2012 when the de-contamination work began.

They allege that the family were unable to see a doctor in Gießen for a period of seven weeks, after which they say they were asked to return to the shop so before being tested, something that the leading doctor on the project denies.

In fact, the same doctor is on the record as saying that he would have ordered the other residents out of their houses, if he had deemed it necessary.

Since the dossier was made public last week, online forums have been full of questions, with the town’s information policy being the target of much of the criticism.  However the idea, that the people of the town did not at least in part know what was going on would seem easy to disprove, simply by looking into the newspaper archives.  Not only were the reports when the work started in 2012, but one online archive contains reports as far back as 2007, two years before the family concerned opened the shop.

The BUND claim that the previous shop-owner may have known about the problem and wanted to get out quickly without saying anything, and that the owner of the building kept quiet about the contamination as well.

They also claim that the town delayed work on the problem so as not to have it as an issue or even a building site during the Hessentag in 2011.

Bearing the brunt of the claims is Alderman Christof Fink, the person in the town hall responsible for environmental issues and himself not only a member of the Green Party but of the BUND itself.  This is, in itself, rather unfortunate, since he only took on the position in April 2012, only a few weeks before the shop in the Eppsteiner Straße closed, so most of the accusations being made concern events before his time in office.

He told the New Year’s gather of the Green Party on Sunday, that he was speechless when he read some of the claims for the first time, and is himself critical of the way that the BUND dossier is simply believed and people in the town appear to assume that everything in it must be right and that the town is taking a risk with its citizens’ health.

“If there is one thing the town can be accused of, it is the fact that nothing was done for 30 years”, he said.  However he insists that the priorities lie in protecting the people in the area from further contamination and to avoid more of the substances entering the water supply.  The town is even considering a libel case against the BUND over some of the direct claims made against him.

With the clean-up effort having cost €900,000 so far and the alleged health issues now being discussed, there is one person who the town’s administration would probably prefer to see in court, and that is the owner of the business who put those chemicals into the ground in the first place.  Apparently that is no longer possible.


About Graham Tappenden

Graham Tappenden is a British ex-pat who first came to Oberursel in 1993 and returned with his family to live there in 2003. He has been writing for since 2006. When not writing blog posts or freelancing for the Oberurseler Woche he works as a self-employed IT consultant solving computer problems and designing websites. In 2016 he gained German citizenship.

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