Gainesville City Commission weighs in on Koppers

Published: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 12:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 12:58 p.m.

Facing public criticism that they have not fought hard enough for the neighborhood near the Koppers Superfund site, Gainesville city commissioners again are urging the Environmental Protection Agency to consider requiring the purchase of homes and relocation of residents as part of the required cleanup of the closed wood treatment plant.

Just before midnight Thursday evening, commissioners decided to add what Commissioner Susan Bottcher termed to be "more strongly worded" language seeking permanent relocation to the feedback they voted to send to the EPA on the consent decree governing Koppers.

That decree is the legal agreement binding the company Beazer East Inc. to implement the cleanup plan the EPA approved in 2011 for the wood treatment plant, located off Northwest 23rd Avenue a short distance east of Northwest Sixth Street.

During Thursday's meeting, several residents of the adjacent Stephen Foster neighborhood reiterated their opposition to the plan and demanded that Beazer East be required to purchase their homes.

The EPA did require that move for properties near the site of a wood treatment plant in Escambia County, the city noted in its comments.

The approved EPA plan also has stirred opposition because it stores contaminated soils from the Koppers property and nearby residential yards on site instead of having them hauled away.

"It's a raw deal," said Commissioner Lauren Poe, who met with EPA officials about Koppers during a trip to Washington, D.C., this week. "It's a raw process. Nobody's happy with this."

The city's feedback to the EPA passed 4-1 with Commissioner Todd Chase in dissent and Commissioners Yvonne Hinson-Rawls and Thomas Hawkins absent.

Chase said he supported the stronger language regarding relocation but did not feel there was enough done for the neighborhood in the overall cleanup agreement, which the city urged the EPA to push ahead with "as soon as possible."

"I can't accept a raw deal or a raw process from our government," Chase said.

The city's comments noted that Koppers' location two miles from the city well field — the only public water supply for the city — "poses a significant threat to our community's groundwater supply." The presence of dioxin, a carcinogen released in some wood treatment processes, in area soils "creates public health concerns" and drives down property values, the comments continued.

In the letter to the EPA, the City Commission sought "expedited" removal of soils from contaminated off-site yards and that the indoor cleanup of homes be added to the requirements of Beazer East if new federal standards for dioxin levels in indoor dust are established.

The EPA studied indoor dust samples last year and concluded there was no health risk. That conclusion has drawn a skeptical response from Paul Rothstein, a local attorney representing several residents in a federal lawsuit against Beazer East that seeks class-action status.

The city also urged the EPA not to relax a requirement that an underground containment wall around contaminated soils and groundwater extend down 65 feet. There was also a statement that the placement of two feet of topsoil on portions of the Koppers site outside the main contamination area was not sufficient.

Bill Pence, an outside attorney who the city pf Gainesville contracts with as environmental counsel, said the permanent relocation of residents was "not going to happen" and that the EPA made that decision when the cleanup plan was approved in 2011.

Pence also said if Beazer East purchases off-site properties, the company would be under no legal requirement to clean the contamination off them.

Assistant City Manager Fred Murry and Rick Hutton, a supervising utility engineer at Gainesville Regional Utilities, said that after 30 years with Koppers on the federal Superfund list, it was time for the cleanup to move ahead.

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