Off-site work begins in yards near Koppers
Published: Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 21, 2014 at 9:55 p.m.
Crews began this week to prepare for the months-long project to remove contaminated soil from yards in the Stephen Foster neighborhood, west of the Koppers Superfund site.
Wednesday morning, trees were taken down at the end Northwest 31st Drive to provide an access road to the property of the former wood treatment plant that has spent 30 years on the federal government’s list of polluted sites. Trucks will haul contaminated soil from neighboring yards to the Koppers site.
The soil will be dumped in a containment area below ground level that eventually will be capped. Groundwater will be pumped out and treated.
This is perhaps the most tangible step yet in the cleanup of the working-class residential area north of downtown Gainesville that has been under the pall of industrial poisons for nearly a century. A wood treatment plant operated there from 1916 to 2009. The federal government put it on a list of priorities for environmental action in 1984.
Even so, not all residents are glad to see this day come. Some believe they are being left out. Some are fearful the work will stir up the pollution. Others are sorry to see the leafy canopy over their homes torn down.
On Thursday morning, crews were in the backyard of a house at the end of Northwest 32nd Avenue, removing trees and fences. That work will continue next week in other yards north of Northwest 30th Avenue — the area that makes up the first “block” of properties slated for cleanup. The removal of one foot of soil from contaminated yards is then expected to begin March 4.
Properties are eligible for remediation if soil tests showed the presence of dioxin, a carcinogen released in a wood treatment process used at the Koppers plant, at seven parts per trillion or more.
After the soil removal, crews then will install new fences, replace soil and plant new grass, plants and trees. Each property will have its own landscaping plan. While owners may seek changes, the plans typically emphasize drought-tolerant bahia grass and native plants.
At the eastern end of Northwest 30th Avenue, one yard already has been completed as a “pilot” project. There, new mulch and a pebble driveway are in place. A newly built fence separates the yard from the Koppers property. New plants, trees and grass adorn the yard.
On Feb. 15, a group of volunteers organized by the community organization Protect Gainesville Citizens painted a shed in the yard in a fresh coat of white paint and green trim. A few days earlier, a worker with the local firm Mike Hill Construction had painted the house. The company did the job at cost, using paint donated by a Sherwin-Williams store.
Pat Cline, a technical adviser with Protect Gainesville Citizens, said the group wants to work to mobilize volunteers and bring in donated supplies to paint more houses in the neighborhood after the soil remediation takes place on a property. The intent, she said, is to make sure the effort to revitalize the neighborhood does not end with the yard work.
Of the 18 homeowners with properties eligible for cleanup in the first area, 17 have signed agreements allowing the remediation to move forward on their land. Beazer East Inc., a former operator of the wood treatment plant and the entity legally responsible for the cleanup, has not been able to contact the last owner, who has a rental property.
It’s expected that work in the first area of homes will take about one month. Done in phases, the full off-site cleanup, which will include properties east of Northwest Sixth Street and stretch to reach some homes south of Northwest 26th Avenue, is expected to take at least four months.
Then, the on-site remediation of soils on the 90-acre Koppers property could go on for years. Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say the long-term goal is the redevelopment of the site.
As the off-site work is ongoing, homeowners will be offered an up-front cash stipend to cover temporary relocation for seven days while work is going on in their yards along with house cleaning and meals. The stipend will be based on the number of residents living in a house, its number of bedrooms and its square footage. Homeowners receive the relocation money even if they decide to stay in their homes for the week work is ongoing in their yards.
Mitchell Brourman, who is overseeing the cleanup for Beazer East, said for some homeowners the stipend could be in the range of $3,000 to $4,000.
During a Tuesday night community meeting, the relocation stipend was one area of concern. Beazer East Inc. will provide the money to homeowners because they have the authority to grant legal access to the properties. But many of the homes in the area are rentals. Tuesday, a woman who rented her home said she was concerned the owner would keep the money, leaving her to pay out of pocket to relocate temporarily.
Cline said tenants in the area should contact her group with their concerns if they run into that situation.
“It’s at least a moral and ethical issue,” Cline said.
It’s projected that, under the city’s tree ordinance, Beazer East Inc. will have to replace about 200 trees that come down during the work in yards.
Resident Mick Drake said his yard had a lush tree canopy and he was concerned about losing trees during the remediation work. In an email, Drake said he has not yet received an answer on the estimated monetary value of his trees and landscaping now and what the value will be after the work is completed.
“My property is very complex,” Drake wrote. “They could never duplicate it, unless some obscene amount of time and money were allocated.”
Other concerns voiced at the community meeting included whether the work would kick up contaminated dust that then would blow onto neighboring properties, the temporary relocation of pets and any legal ramifications of signing an access agreement to have a yard cleaned.
Brourman said “when you’re cutting down trees you’re going to generate some dust” and there is no way to control “every molecule.” He did say that water trucks have been on the Koppers site for three years to control dust and air-monitoring equipment will be stationed in the neighborhood during the work in yards.
That meeting did include some testy exchanges between Brourman and members of the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Association Inc., which seeks to have residents bought out.
On the issue of housing pets, Yvette Carter, a community liaison with the city of Gainesville, said the city is looking for veterinarians who would offer reduced rates or a waiver to residents who move out temporarily.
In response to legal concerns, Brourman said a homeowner who signs an access agreement does not forfeit any rights to pursue legal action against Beazer East in the future.
The cleanup plan has been an ongoing source of controversy in recent years. It has stirred opposition because of the plan to contain and store the contaminated soils on the Koppers site instead of hauling them away and because it does not include the purchase of homes to permanently relocate residents.
At Thursday night’s City Commission meeting, resident Maria Parsons, a member of the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Association Inc., pressed for the city and state to establish a fund to buy the homes of residents who seek to relocate.
On the other hand, community and local government input expanded the scope of the plan and led to the addition of the cleanup of off-site soils. Cline said the individual landscaping plans and upfront payment of monies for temporary relocation and cleaning were also unique for a Superfund site.
The city of Gainesville and Beazer East also remain in negotiations on a legal agreement ending the city’s consideration of potential legal action against the company.
Under state and federal law, Gainesville can seek reimbursement for money spent on consultants and studies that impacted the eventual cleanup plan.
City Attorney Nicolle Shalley has said the city and its utility spent close to $2 million over the years, primarily for studies related to impacts on the aquifer and the movement of groundwater toward the Murphree wellfield, which supplies the city’s drinking water.
After the city sought reimbursement from Beazer, the company responded with an interest in talks to pay for public improvement projects instead. Those included resurfacing of roads, water and sewer line upgrades, and stormwater improvements in the Stephen Foster neighborhood.