Superfund Setbacks

Damaged sites don't fade away. They just give local officials a planning headache.
by | August 2005

On Christine Richman's first day on the job as Midvale, Utah's director of economic development, the city manager came into her office and plopped a big roll of redevelopment plans on her desk. They pertained to one of two side-by-side Superfund sites in the city. He told her to review the plans, talk to everyone involved and get comments back to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in two weeks.

That was nine years ago.

Nothing has been built yet--on either of the sites, which were contaminated by industrial production and which happen to be the only remaining developable land in the city. Nothing can be done with the two parcels until EPA has approved cleanup and future uses for the land. And that, as Richman has learned, is a very long process.

Managing a city and planning for economic development is never an easy job, but it's even tougher when there's a Superfund elephant in the room. Officials have to balance a slew of additional issues that their counterparts never have to worry about. To move forward with a development plan, they have to consult with the state, the federal government and several sets of environmental lawyers about soil tests, remediation results, financing options and building plans. There's also the additional layer of citizen involvement brought on by contamination issues. "It's hard enough to redevelop 600-plus acres without regulatory agencies making it almost impossible," says Richman of the challenge she faces in making something of the damaged acreage that she and other city officials see as vital to Midvale's future.

Midvale is not alone. Hundreds of localities are stuck with one or more of the 428 Superfund sites that are in the process of moving toward cleanup. But these sites stand in the way of--and slow down-- rational economic development plans. Midvale's experience--a cautionary tale of the difficulties in working with and around a Superfund site and EPA--is also a ray of hope. The city has begun to move some pieces of the development process forward, and in terms of "hosting" a Superfund site, it is sitting relatively pretty. Like some other localities, it has received settlement money from polluting companies to do the remediation work on the site, and one of the parcels has already been cleaned up. About 30 percent of jurisdictions, unable to identify or hold polluters responsible, must count on annual federal appropriations. And that's not always a sure thing. New Jersey officials got so tired of waiting for Superfund money for a site in Kearny, they began the cleanup on their own. Several other places have done the same. But whatever the approach, reuse and development on or near a Superfund site usually turns into a frustratingly slow exercise.


Black heaps of slag still sit on the weedy Superfund site in Midvale- -leftovers from a smelting facility that began treating ore from nearby mines in 1871. There also had been piles of mill tailings loaded with lead on one of the parcels of land, the Sharon Steel site. Unlike the heavy piles of slag, these were powdery and blew all over the city, contaminating the dirt in people's yards and gardens. A project to cover the tailings and clean up the Sharon site began in 1994 and took three years to complete.

But a "horrifying" thing happened on the road to decontamination, Richman says. The cleanup was fine for meeting EPA pollution-cleansing standards, but it was counterproductive for the city and its plan to have a developer build 2,500 housing units on the site.

The original remediation concept for covering the contaminated soil called for a clay cap overlaid with six feet of topsoil to prevent water from getting into the contaminated dirt and spreading the pollutants. But state and federal engineers overrode that idea with what they thought was a brilliant engineering solution. They covered the area with a material akin to a super thick plastic garbage bag and saved money by reducing the number of feet of soil they would need to cover the site. So, instead of six feet of soil over the clay cap, they were able to take care of the pollution problem with one-and-a- half feet of soil over the plastic barrier. The cost for the project was $40 million--a savings of many millions of dollars.

While the federal and state engineers were high-fiving their genius, Midvale was in the dumps. The city had tried to get the feds to do the remediation differently, to no avail. The problem is, the city needs six feet of soil to put utilities in for the housing development. Soil now has to be trucked in--at a cost of about $34 million--in order for the city to lay water and sewer lines. In some places, the city needs to dump in as much as 20 feet of soil to even out the valleys between swells that the environmental engineers put in for drainage.

"What happened at Sharon Steel was a mistake," says Richman. "EPA didn't adequately take into account what would happen next. Instead of getting a clear idea of what the city or the investor wanted, they moved ahead with a wonderful engineering solution that's not wonderful for anything else."

The development company that signed on to build the housing will make the initial investment to bring in the soil. The city will pay it back over 25 years. To get its financing in order, Midvale created the Jordan Bluffs Redevelopment Project, a separate legal entity based on a state statute for redevelopment sites. Unfortunately for Midvale, there was a delay here as well. The state statute had to be amended before the city could put the plan in action: The statute as originally written didn't include Superfund sites.

Since the engineering drama, the relationship between Midvale officials and EPA has improved. In part that's because federal officials have agreed to widen the circle of interested parties, have included the city in their planning and been much more forthcoming with information.

And that is helping with the cleanup of the second site. Fran Costanzi is the EPA remedial project manager and environmental engineer assigned to it. "The site attorney and I decided early on to share just about everything," Costanzi says. "To do that you need to develop relationships with people." Working together, federal and local officials have made efforts to keep the citizens of Midvale up to date and give them input on the cleanup and development plans for the site.

Richman has come to realize that she is particularly fortunate to have this kind of relationship with her EPA counterparts. She attended a meeting in Dallas with other municipal officials who had Superfund sites in their jurisdictions, and they told her they are stuck with unresponsive federal officials who don't keep them informed about what's going on at their sites. Some of them complained that they couldn't get basic information out of their project managers, such as whether they were testing soil or water wells and when results were expected. "To a great extent, the ability to move forward depends a great deal on who they get assigned," Richman says.


Dover Township, New Jersey, probably wishes it was as close to reuse of its site as Midvale. The largest single tract of undeveloped land in the township has triple oversight. The core of the 1,400-acre tract--a 200-acre portion--is so contaminated that EPA has taken charge of it and deemed it unusable. Another part of the tract is under state oversight: It is contaminated with buried drums of chemicals. The company that had been located there removed 47,000 drums of hazardous chemicals last year but the remaining 30,000 are a source of contention. The state in the past few months has tried to get information about exactly what is in the buried drums and to get the company to remove them. The company's position is that the drums are better left undisturbed.

It's going to be many years, perhaps decades, before the core site and the groundwater in the area are cleaned up. But there is another portion of the tract that is uncontaminated. Dover Township would like to take advantage of that area, which is situated next to park land, for recreation. Until the drums are removed from the other portion of the site and additional development issues are resolved, things are at a standstill. "Nothing can be done with the land," Council President Gregory McGuckin says. "The whole thing is locked up. The whole property is held captive." Yet, it still requires township services, such as police and fire protection.

Edgewater, New Jersey, is sympathetic to Dover's difficulties. The borough got a proposal from a developer to build a sports facility with tennis, bocce and volleyball courts on a site where a tar- processing plant and oil-recycling facility used to be. EPA considers the area part of a Superfund site where arsenic, lead, coal tar creosote and PCBs are poisoning the soil. EPA officials have requested that the Edgewater zoning board not issue any permits until the contamination is dealt with. That could take decades.

Superfund cities also deal with psychological blight. There was a time when the only reason Midvale was in the news was for being the home to a Superfund site. Sadly, the big black slag piles have become a symbol of the city, Richman says.

Dover Township feels a similar burden. The contaminated Superfund site has been chained up for more than a decade. Some aspect of the problem comes up at nearly every council meeting. "It's a constant presence and worry on what goes on out there," says McGuckin. "It has been a tremendous strain on residents and the community." And no one knows when it will end.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |