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State will reimburse cleanup costs at office site

SALISBURY — For a $20,000 deductible, the city of Salisbury has access to up to $1.5 million from the state to pay for contamination cleanup at the proposed downtown school central office site.
“That is an incredible deal,” City Manager Doug Paris said.
The city’s cost for cleaning up fuel leaked from buried tanks is expected to run about $500,000. That includes backfilling the site in the 300 block of South Main Street. So far, the state has preapproved about $400,000 in reimbursements for Salisbury, said Vance Jackson, head of the Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund Branch, part of the Division of Waste Management in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“We have an eligibility process, and the city has qualified,” Jackson said.
All of Salisbury’s costs related to the cleanup — up to $1 million — will be reimbursed in full after the $20,000 deductible, Jackson said.
Qualified cleanup projects that exceed $1 million are reimbursed at 80 percent, up to $1.5 million, he said.
Citing the contamination, Rowan County commissioners on Monday nixed a plan to borrow $6 million on behalf of Rowan-Salisbury Schools to build the central office downtown.
In response, Salisbury City Council voted a day later to consider borrowing an even larger sum — $8 million — for the central office. If the deal comes together, the school system would pay back the city with state sales tax revenue earmarked for capital outlay.
The city bought a former service station in the 300 block of South Main Street 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.
The former owner, Holding Brothers, is now defunct. Jackson said it was commendable for the city to clean up the site.
“There was no viable responsible owner for this site,” Jackson said. “In this circumstance, the city chose to step into the shoes of the responsible party.”
The state approved reimbursement of cleanup costs before the city began the work.
The state trust is not a grant program but a reimbursement fund for documented costs related to cleaning up petroleum leaked from underground storage tanks. Reimbursement usually takes up to 60 days after a claim is complete.
Money for the trust fund comes primarily from two sources:
• An increment of the motor fuels excise tax
• Annual fees paid by owners and operators of regulated underground storage tanks
Salisbury’s cleanup costs are in the middle range of projects currently under way, Jackson said. The average reimbursement is $150,000, and the trust fund has had a number of sites in the $1 million range, he said.
The deductibles are set by state statute, and Salisbury has the lowest deductible available.
The site would have been eligible for cleanup cost reimbursement whether the city stepped in or not, Jackson said. But without Salisbury taking the lead and paying the deductible, it could have taken years for the state to clean up the site, he said.
“The city stepped in because they wanted an expedited cleanup,” he said.
Any landowner, not just the government, can report underground gas tank contamination and apply to the state for reimbursement, Jackson said.
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, who is overseeing the cleanup for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Underground Storage Tank Section.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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