Trinity Park and Walltown residents told environmental officials Tuesday evening that they need to improve the way they communicate.
That message was conveyed at a three-hour meeting last night called to discuss the first phase of cleanup plans at 1103 W. Club Blvd. That’s the site where a former dry-cleaning business’ perchloroethylene evidently tainted nearby buildings’ air as well as some neighborhood soil and ground water.
Officials with the state Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Cary engineering firm that is planning the cleanup brought posters illustrating the extent of contamination, but attendees said more clarity is needed.
“Nobody could look at that and say, ‘That’s above the [permitted contamination] level, that’s below the level. I’m safe, she’s not safe,’” said Barb Carter, a chemist and pharmaceutical patent attorney who lives just outside the area affected by the spill. “There’s no reassurance, there was no explanation. And so I’m requesting something from you that helps us understand. Because I’m not afraid of perc for various reasons — maybe I ought to be — but everybody else is.”
Two Walltown residents also complained that their neighborhood had not been officially contacted at all about the spill despite their proximity to it. Experts, however, noted that most of the chemical has been contained within the block where the former dry-cleaning business was located.
Billy Meyer is the BB&T cleanup project manager in the branch of DENR that handles work authorized by the state’s Dry-Cleaning Solvent Cleanup Act, colloquially known as DSCA. The property in question has been on the state’s cleanup list since October 2006.
“We tried to set up a line of communication with the home-owners’ association, but that line of communication, I guess it turned out to be a line of miscommunication,” he said during his response to Carter.
He and other DENR officials pledged to improve communication, although they said some of the residents’ frustration was unavoidable due to wrinkles in the cleanup planning and process.
Officials intend to demolish the building at 1103 W. Club Blvd. — most recently used as a church until the city condemned it in 2009 — beginning around mid-May. The process should take three to five days once asbestos abatement is complete. Air quality will be monitored during demolition, and neighboring residents and businesses will be informed if air pollutants rise significantly.
The demolition will leave behind the structure’s concrete pad, beneath which much of the concentrated solvent is believed to lie. Openings in the pad will be closed to prevent perc from spreading through the air. Potholes that may develop during demolition will also be filled in for the same reason.
DENR typically rehabilitates structures contaminated by the dry-cleaning solvent, but they determined that it would cost more to attempt a cleanup that might not succeed than it would to raze the building. This is the first time the state has opted for demolition when rehabbing a perc problem.
Negotiations with property owner Liduvina Garcia of Maryland over the value of the soon-to-be-razed building took a long time to complete, noted Chan Bryant, an engineer with Cary’s Withers and Ravenel.
The building itself is contaminated and unfit for use. But an adjacent church and two nearby homes are also potentially unsafe because of tainted soil and groundwater. Temporary remedies have been applied, but the indoor air contamination can’t be permanently abated without excavating the spill beneath the structure at 1103 W. Club Blvd., a DENR official told Philip Azar when the Trinity Park Neighborhood Association president asked to speed up the decontamination process.
“Part of the reason for demolishing the building is to get better access under the building,” said Jack Butler, the chief of DENR’s waste management division.
In other words, he explained, experts can’t excavate until they know exactly where the underground perc is concentrated, and they can’t safely test the soil while the building stands.
Officials have yet to determine how long the site will be enclosed by a security fence that is to be erected for the demolition process. A decision on the fence will likely rest on how experts rate the risk of perc exposure to individuals who cross the property on foot.
Environmental officials expect to convene another public meeting in September to present details of their final cleanup plan for the site. In addition to soil excavation, the final remediation is likely to block any structure from being placed at 1103 W. Club Blvd. for at least several years.
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The panel fielded a number of queries about what can be done to ban the future use of perc. That’s a decision that would have to be made by the General Assembly, a group of perhaps three dozen spectators was told.
Butler and colleagues are working on a document evaluating the pros and cons of solvents other than perc. That report should be finished by year’s end.
While Butler seemed sympathetic to calls to ban perc, which is considered a probable carcinogen, he said he is not currently prepared to recommend prohibition. “People do still demand dry-cleaned clothes, and they expect clothes to come back clean,” he noted.
“It’s very disturbing to me,” replied Beverly Kerr, who called herself a friend of Laura Drey, who lived near the spill until last August. “It seems that you’re putting the industries and the profits ahead of people and the environment and health.”
Drey herself asked several questions during the meeting. She also urged that Club Boulevard be closed during the demolition and that the DATA bus stop immediately beside the contaminated building be moved during that period to limit travelers’ perc exposure.
She presented camellia flowers from her Dollar Avenue property, which suffered air, soil and groundwater contamination, to state officials and Bryant.
Drey, a photographer, would like to sell her old home, which she vacated because of health concerns. But she wants to do so knowing that the new owners can move in safely.
Drey is concerned that the perc remediation will be limited by a declining state budget and a spending cap of $1 million per severely tainted site per year.
“They can’t do as good a cleanup as they might if they had greater resources — more money,” Drey said once the gathering ended.
The demolition is expected to cost around $174,000, although the state has also paid compensation to Garcia for the demolition and to Withers and Ravenel for work on the site.
Moriah Beck lives on Watts Street, on the same block as 1103 W. Club Blvd. but outside of the perc contamination zone. She’s moving out of state and has put her house on the market.
Beck liked what she heard at the meeting. She’s hopeful that the latest news on the remediation will reassure potential buyers that the perc spill doesn’t pose a serious health threat.
“My impression is that it’s kind of been long overdue, but it sounds like they’re taking the right steps and moving as quickly as they can given the legal steps that had to take place,” she said of the cleanup plans.
Carter, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, worries that the state will abandon the cleanup before the tainted soil is removed. She was much less sanguine than Beck when asked whether she felt better or worse about the cleanup based on what she had just heard.
“Worse,” she replied. “Because they’re not doing anything.”
Added Carter: “I just think it’s problematic to spend all this time, and then all you’re doing is knocking this building down.”
Butler and his team said that they won’t leave the neighborhood hanging. But for the moment, some residents are unlikely to be reassured until the state’s words and actions start meeting their expectations.