The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and Mobile Gas claim they continue work to clean up a contaminated former industrial property in downtown Mobile.
The site — a former manufactured gas plant (MGP) bounded by Broad Street to the east, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to the south, Marmotte Street to the west and Earle Street to the north — is believed to be contaminated and in 2010 was enrolled in a voluntary cleanup program through ADEM, Mobile Gas spokeswoman Keeshia Davis wrote in an email.
“To assist us in this effort, we have retained the services of Corporate Environmental Solutions, a national expert on MGP sites, with local help from Corporate Environmental Risk Management and McFadden Engineering,” Davis wrote. “In addition, as part of that effort, two community boards have been created, one dealing with public concerns and one focusing on the technical aspects of the voluntary cleanup program. Furthermore, several public meetings have been held over the years and a quarterly newsletter is sent out to members of the community providing updates on our efforts.”
The risk management phase of the program was recently completed and today, Mobile Gas is in the process of submitting a cleanup plan to ADEM, Davis said.
“It is our hope that we will be in position to submit the cleanup plan within the next six weeks,” Davis wrote. “ADEM will have up to 60 days to review and comment on the cleanup plan.”
Once the cleanup plan is submitted, ADEM will provide a 30- to-45-day public comment period before actual remediation work on the site can begin, ADEM spokeswoman Lynn Battle said. Davis wrote that cleanup on a site the size of the one in question could take anywhere from four to six months.
A predecessor to Mobile Gas began operating a manufactured gas plant on the site in 1836, Davis wrote. The plant was operational there for almost 100 years until natural gas was introduced into the area. As a result of those operations, Davis wrote, the site is contaminated with coal tar, a common byproduct of the manufactured-gas production process.
“There are underground gas holders and tar tanks on the property,” Davis wrote. “Utilizing the original drawings, test pits and ground-penetrating radar, their locations have been determined. A major component of the cleanup plan will include the excavation and cleanup of those areas.”
Environmental studies were conducted on the site in both 1994 and 2004, Davis wrote. While contaminants were identified, no pathways to exposure to people were found, she wrote.
“Since 1994, annual water sampling has been taken at different locations along One Mile Creek, which is adjacent to the property, and there have been no pollutants attributable to the operation of the MGP identified in those water samples,” Davis wrote.
Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway listed chemicals such as arsenic and chromium as contaminants on the site.
“It’s pretty toxic,” she said. “They’ve been moving toward cleaning this site up, which is great, but we want to be able to start seeing results.”
While Davis confirmed arsenic was found on the site, she wrote that the “background levels” found are consistent with naturally occurring levels found in the Mobile area and around the state.
Mobile Gas has had the site fenced off for years, Davis wrote, but acknowledged interest in eventually developing it into “public access green space.”
Callaway said the site can be reclaimed once it has been properly cleaned.
“Arsenic is not good for people, period,” Callaway said. “Playing on a field with arsenic is not good, but if you’re not playing on it, or around it, the risks are low.”
Members of a community advisory committee were concerned with health issues affecting people in the area and the site’s proximity to schools.
In a letter to other committee members dated April 1, retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Gary Cooper asked when the site will be cleaned.
“It is located across from Bishop State Community College, [Most Pure] Heart of Mary [Catholic] School and Metropolitan AME Church,” Cooper wrote, adding his concern about persisting health risks. “My experience as chairman of the environmental committee for U.S. Steel made me aware that if natural gas was produced at the site, no matter how many years ago, that serious health hazards remain from cyanide and mercury.”
Robert Battles, a Mobile County School Board member and committee member for the project, said Mobile Gas is not doing enough to mitigate existing hazards.
“We’ve been dealing with this for a long time,” Battles said.
Battles said Mobile Gas was looking to make the area into a park by eventually placing benches on the site.
While ADEM’s brownfield redevelopment program is working on the site, it’s unclear whether it is actually considered a brownfield, Battle said. A designation of both ADEM and the Environmental Protection Agency, brownfields are defined as “sites where previous industry or other activity has contaminated the property, making redevelopment more challenging than with previously unused real estate.” A brownfield designation may provide for federal remediation money.
In 2011, ADEM released a list of brownfields statewide and the site at Broad Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive wasn’t listed. In fact, Mobile’s only brownfield site was listed as the former Seaman’s Hotel at 350 St. Joseph Street.