1770 13th St.: A history of contamination, and an odd land-use decision

An aerial view from the 1940s.
Photo courtesy of the Colorado Aerial Photo Service

Read the main story “Tempest under a teacup” here.

Boulder was a very different, grittier place at the turn of the last century. The first automobile had just appeared in town and the speed limit for the new machine was capped at six miles per hour. Railroad workers had unionized and gone on strike. As was the custom then and now, the company hired replacement workers, and in response, a disgruntled union brakeman lit a caboose on fire where the scabs were sleeping. The fire quickly spread to a freight car containing 2,400 pounds of dynamite, and a chunk of downtown Boulder blew up, killing three people.

Andrew Macky wasn’t yet the namesake of the University of Colorado auditorium concert hall. In 1904 he was the principal shareholder of the Federal Gas Company, which manufactured coal gas, a substance more commonly known as “town gas” that was used to light the lamps of the downtown business district and surrounding homes. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the leftover grit from these early days has reappeared and is sorely out of place in today’s Boulder.

The 13th Street Plaza, Dushanbe Teahouse and Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art together represent an area of town considered to be one of Boulder’s crown jewels. With Central Park just across the street to the west, it’s also the area that hosts Boulder’s Farmers’ Market on weekends and any number of festivals throughout the summer.

But 1770 13th St. wasn’t always a center of Boulder culture. For more than 50 years it was home to a towngas manufacturing plant that appears to have left behind a serious mess in the form of soil and groundwater contamination, contamination that is proving to be quite a challenge to clean up, mostly because the City of Boulder built a plaza and a teahouse right on top of it even after it knew the subsurface contamination was an issue.

But in 1902, the only issue was that Boulder needed lamps to illuminate the night and something to burn in those lamps. To meet this need, the Boulder Gaslight and Fuel Company (BGFC) built a town gas facility on a 1.5-acre lot at what is now 1770 13th St. The company’s office was housed next door, across the Boulder & Left Hand Ditch, in what is now the Museum of Contemporary Art at 1750 13th St.

The reason for the gas plant being on the edge of downtown can be summed up in two words: “trains and pipe.” Being close to Boulder’s train station made getting coal deliveries more convenient and cost-effective, and being close to the homes and streetlamps that used the company’s town gas was necessary because pressurizing a gas-pipeline system was quite a challenge 110 years ago, and pipe was a significant expense for the company. So it helped to be as close to your gas customers as possible.

Like a lot of startup companies, BGFC soon ran into financial trouble and was forced to sell its town-gas plant. The buyer was the Federal Gas Company, where the primary shareholder turned out to be Boulder banker, philanthropist and concert-hall namesake Andrew Macky.

Macky was an original Boulder settler and is credited with building the town’s first frame house. But he became a wealthy prominent citizen when he founded the First National Bank of Boulder in 1877 and served as its director until his death in 1906.

With Macky in charge of the Federal Gas Company, the business prospered. Not only was town gas manufactured from coal and sold, the company also purchased the first commercial natural gas well at the edge of town in 1906 and hooked it into its pipeline system.

As Boulder grew, so did Macky’s gas business. Old news reports describe the excitement of area residents as new parts of town such as University Hill were added to the pipeline system. The company also made, sold and tested lamps at its plant.

After Macky died in 1906, his estate continued to own and direct the town-gas company for years.

At times, you could say that the town gas business was too good. In what reads like a page from Boulder’s current municipalization debate, area residents in the 1920s thought that the company was making too much profit. All gas rate hikes in those days had to be approved by Boulder City Council. After one particular rate hike it was determined that the gas company was making an 11 percent profit, and citizens were outraged. As a result, in 1921, the city council reduced town gas rates and diminished the profits of the company in favor of its customers.

The Federal Gas Company owned and ran the town-gas facility for five more years after the rate decrease, and even longer, at least in name. In 1926, a new energy player came to town, and things changed again. Public Service Company (PSCo) built its Valmont Station coal-fired plant east of town next to Valmont Butte that year. And at the same time, PSCo also became the largest shareholder of Federal Gas Company, apparently making it the controlling entity over the gas plant from 1926 until the plant was shut down between 1952 and 1954.

While no one seems sure about the exact date the plant finally shut down, it is known that by 1956, the above-ground portions of the circular gasometer tanks at the plant had been removed. By 1962, all above-ground structures of the former gas plant were gone. But as is the case with most of the nation’s 1,500-plus now-closed town-gas sites, the underground infrastructure of the gas-making facility, including tanks, pipes and the subsurface elements of gasometers, were left in place, along with a good deal of soil and groundwater contamination.

The property was sold by PSCo to three Boulder men in 1963. It changed hands several more times after that. The lot was finally covered with blacktop and turned into a parking lot. Eventually it was purchased by the City of Boulder and was being used as a permit-only parking area for city employees.

In 1987, the people of Boulder’s sister city of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, gave Boulder a traditional Tajik teahouse as a gift. In 1990, then-Mayor Leslie Durgin appointed a citizen task force to determine an appropriate site for the teahouse. The task force examined several viable near-downtown locations and then chose the 13th Street site in 1991. Between 1991 and 1994, the city approved the 13th Street site location over a second location at 11th and Arapahoe, created a master plan for the development of the area, incorporated the teahouse trust and signed a 20-year lease with the trust to manage the teahouse, including its construction and future restaurant operations.

It isn’t clear from the record if city council members or the citizen task force were aware of the 13th Street site’s town gas history and subsurface contamination prior to 1994, even though city officials should have been aware at the time the city purchased the property. But either way, in 1994 the EPA evaluated the site, and at that point, with absolute certainty, the city was made fully aware of the site’s history and subsurface contamination issues even though subsurface testing had yet to be done.

Despite this knowledge, the city and teahouse trust pushed forward with their plans to put the teahouse and plaza directly on top of the old gas plant grounds.

In 1997, the city did an electro-magnetic survey of the property (see map page 14), which confirmed that the underground infrastructure of the old gas plant has, in fact, never been removed from the site or remediated. Yet, even armed with this proof of contamination below the surface and despite the funding issues that had arisen due to the contamination, the city broke ground on the teahouse redevelopment of the gas plant property later in 1997, paying for the project itself after funding for an initial prospective teahouse proprietor fell through due to fears surrounding the contamination. The assembly of the teahouse was completed in 1998.

In 2003, groundwater contamination consistent with the types associated with town gas sites, as had been described to the city in 1994 by the EPA, was discovered in the monitoring wells of a separate groundwater remediation site on 15th Street, some 300 feet to the southeast of the old Federal Gas site.

The consulting firm monitoring the 15th Street wells says that the benzene and naphthalene contamination at this location is coming from a plume of contamination emanating from the old Federal Gas Plant site. In 2009, the city of Boulder and the EPA were informed of this possibility. A report prepared by the consulting firm in 2009 and presented to the EPA recommended a subsurface investigation to determine if the naphthalene and benzene contamination observed in the area originates from the historic Federal Gas Company.

According to EPA documents dated 2010, as a result of this concern over a possible contamination plume reaching the 15th Street wells from the teahouse location, the City of Boulder launched a new investigation of subsurface contamination at the site, something that it failed to do prior to building the plaza and teahouse at the location.

In 2012, Xcel (as the current owner of PSCo) joined with the city to do a $230,000 study of the property, including drilling additional monitoring wells and partial excavation on the eastern part of the teahouse property.