Cleanup of ‘massive’ soil contamination at central office site could be complete in 60 days

  • Posted: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 1:15 a.m.

SALISBURY — While the proposed site for the Rowan-Salisbury Schools central office has extensive soil contamination, no one knows if groundwater under the site is contaminated as well, a state official said.

Rowan County commissioners on Monday killed plans for a downtown school central office, citing contamination.

So far, the city has removed seven underground fuel tanks and 3,500 tons of contaminated soil from the site, a “massive amount,” said Dan Graham, a hydrogeologist with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Underground Storage Tank Section.

But groundwater contamination — and any state-mandated cleanup — can be determined only by digging test wells at the site, Graham said.

“You could speculate to high heaven, but until you have analytical results, you just don’t know for sure,” said Graham, who works in Mooresville and serves as the state’s project manager for the proposed central office site.

Salisbury City Manager Doug Paris said the city will continue the cleanup and, in light of the commissioners’ vote, plans to sell the property in the 300 block of South Main Street to a private developer.

“Our role is to enable the property to go back to productive use,” Paris said. “... We will develop something else on top of it. We want that end of downtown to look just as good as North Main Street and Easy Street.”

Paris said private developers are interested in the site and surrounding area but would not disclose names.

“Private investment tends to follow public investment,” he said.

He estimated the site will be cleaned up, backfilled and ready for development within 60 days.

Paris said he couldn’t say whether the city would consider financing the $8 million school central office project, instead of the county.

“I would need staff to convene and consider if that’s a viable option, and I would need to put that before City Council and the school board,” he said.

The state is picking up the tab for cleanup at the site, which has skyrocketed from $35,000 to an estimated $500,000. The city will pay a $20,000 deductible, regardless of the total price tag.

The city bought the former service station in 2007. The state had given the site a clean bill of health in 1991 and reaffirmed the finding in 2007 before the city bought the property.

Discovering contamination

When site preparation began for the school central office last fall, soil contamination was discovered, as well as three orphan underground gas tanks. Four more tanks were discovered later.

Former owners had removed seven previous tanks, for a total of 14 tanks at the site.

Graham said he has seen sites with similar soil contamination that had no groundwater contamination. On the other hand, some sites that seemed cleaner than the Salisbury location have actually had groundwater contamination that required abatement, he said.

Sight and smell are not accurate tests to determine groundwater contamination, he said.

Graham said he will decide whether the city needs to install test wells after he receives a report about the site, due next month.

Called an initial abatement action report, this document will detail the total amount of soil excavated, amount and type of contaminants and where the contamination was located on the site.

Dealing with contamination

If test wells are required and determine the groundwater is contaminated, Graham said he would then consider whether anyone is in danger of coming into contact with the water.

Typically, that includes drinking water wells and other “receptors,” such as basements. No one drinks from a private well in downtown Salisbury, Graham said.

If groundwater contamination is present at the site but falls below state levels and the risk of someone coming into contact with it is low, the contamination could be allowed to dissipate naturally, Graham said.

“There could be groundwater contamination that would not need to be abated,” he said. “…You can leave certain groundwater contamination at certain levels because there are no receptors that would be impacted.”

However, if contamination exceeds state standards, Graham would assign a risk level for the site and start a cleanup plan.

“At that point, we would determine how to move forward,” he said.

So far, the city has submitted one report to Graham, prepared by the city’s contractor, Griffith Enterprises of Winston-Salem, which is doing the excavation.

“The city is doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, and they are well within compliance,” Graham said. “They are trying to get this place cleaned up.”

Because the city is not responsible for the contamination and the former owner is defunct, the state is paying for most of the cleanup costs.

The next report is due March 12, but Graham said he would give the city an extension if needed.

“With a site of this magnitude and the fact that they didn’t know the tanks were there, and the city is not the responsible party, I would give them more time if they need it,” Graham said.

Rowan County had started due diligence on the site before Monday’s vote, County Manager Gary Page said, because the city would have transferred the deed to the county if the project had moved forward.

Page said the county directed Golder Associates, a Durham-based consulting firm Rowan uses for environmental studies, to request public records about the site from Graham and stay abreast of the cleanup effort.

If commissioners had decided to move forward with the downtown site, the county would need an independent review of the site, Page said at Monday’s meeting.

Page said he had made the county’s consultant aware of the possibility that Rowan may eventually own the site. The firm made the Freedom of Information Act requests, and “no great sums have been spent” by the county, Page said.

He said the records request was a routine part of county procedure, similar to what the county did when buying property in the airport area. Rowan was not being “intrusive” toward the city, he said.

Golder only collected documents and made no recommendation to the county about the property, Page said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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