Removal of Depot coal tar hits snag


Published: Tuesday, January 7, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 7, 2003 at 12:32 a.m.
It's Gainesville's most ambitious environmental cleanup project: a plan to turn 38 acres soaked in black, gooey sludge into a city park.
But now city officials say Gainesville's multimillion-dollar Depot Park cleanup project may not remove all of the coal tar on the site of the old CSX train depot, one of the city's most polluted sites.
And critics of the cleanup plan say the contamination left behind could threaten the aquifer where the city gets its drinking water.
"This stuff could sit there for hundreds of years, leaking into the water," Gainesville hydrogeologist Stephen Boyes said. "If we're going to clean it up, we might as well clean all of it."
More than a year ago, Gainesville city commissioners voted to buy the 22-acre site of the former CSX train depot just south of Depot Avenue - one of a handful of downtown properties that was polluted with coal tar from the coal gasification plant that the now-defunct Gainesville Gas Co. operated nearby for decades.
City officials say the coal tar is carcinogenic and is slowly spreading into the groundwater on the site.
They had little choice in the matter. The city-owned power company, Gainesville Regional Utilities, assumed responsibility for cleaning up the site when it bought Gainesville Gas in 1990.
But city officials wanted to use the site to clean up more than one of the city's problems. Faced with a shortage of public park space, they wanted to dig up and replace contaminated soil on the Depot site and adjacent lots and turn them into a 38-acre public park. Eleven acres of that park would be occupied by a stormwater pond, needed to curb problems with erosion and pollution on Sweetwater Branch.
And Gainesville natural gas customers would foot much of the bill. Last October, GRU increased its gas rates to raise the $7.7 million GRU officials said they needed to clear the top 6 feet of contaminated soil from the site. The rate increases, which will be in place for 30 years, cost the average gas customer about 73 cents a month, GRU officials say.
GRU officials have since discovered that the contamination on the site goes deeper than 6 feet in some places and as deep as 38 feet on some parts of the property. The current cleanup plan will get about 80 percent of the contamination, leaving pockets of coal tar under the proposed new park.
GRU officials say a total cleanup would add $1 million to the cost, and possibly more if problems arise. By removing most of the tar, GRU engineer Yolanta Jonynas said, GRU can reduce the site's groundwater threat to "an acceptable level." The remaining coal tar would still contaminate groundwater, she said, but contamination levels wouldn't be high enough to violate water safety standards.
"This is what is known as a risk-based approach to cleanup," she said. "People are starting to understand that it isn't cost-effective to do a 100 percent cleanup on every site. Sometimes the money you spend getting every last drop of contamination is money that could be used more effectively on another environmental project."
That doesn't sit well with Boyes and some other members of the East Gainesville Sprout Task Force, the board of residents the city appointed to advise it on the project.
"If they're going to go in there and get it, I don't see why they don't get it all," task force member Janie Williams said.
Environmental engineer and former City Commissioner Pegeen Hanrahan, who devoted much of her six-year commission career to the Depot Avenue project, said she has mixed emotions about the cleanup plan.
"I think it's usually better, once you're digging, to clean up everything," she said. "But I understand that we don't want to spend a million or several million dollars of public money on something that may not have a major impact."
State environmental officials have yet to weigh in on how deep the Depot dig should go, but officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection say they will discuss the matter with GRU officials in a teleconference next week.
Tim Lockette can be reached at 374-5088 or lockett@ gvillesun.com.

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