City to spend $4 million cleaning up teahouse property

Critic: Plan is inadequate, taxpayers should demand that Xcel chip in now

The dotted blue line represents the total area to be excavated to a depth of seven feet. The orange circle shows the portion where to to eight feet of soil will be removed, and the purple line marks the section that is expected to be excavated to a depth
USA Environment, L.P.

The City of Boulder is planning to shell out $4 million to clean up the environmental contamination left by the gas plant that operated for decades on the property that is now home to the Dushanbe Teahouse and 13th Street Plaza.


But one of the nation’s experts on such projects says the remediation does not go far enough and leaves the taxpayers holding the bag because there is no plan currently in place for Xcel Energy to share the costs. However, city officials say they do plan to eventually attempt to recover money from the company.

The contamination of the 13th Street Plaza property, which was the focus of a series of Boulder Weekly articles earlier this year, was caused by a coal gasification plant operated by the Federal Gas Company from 1902 until the early 1950s. The Environmental Protection Agency noti fied city officials of the contamination in the mid-1990s, but the city built the teahouse at the site anyway, directly on top of old coal-gas lines that will not be unearthed as part of the planned remediation because they have been deemed a minor health threat.

The city began to gain an understanding of the full extent of the problem over the past couple of years, after complaints arose in 2009 about contamination roughly 300 feet southeast of the gas plant site, at the former location of a dry cleaner where elevated levels of certain chemicals associated with coal gasification plants were detected. The city and its consultants have insisted that the 13th Street property is not the source of that contamination, claiming that groundwater under the property flows to the northeast, away from a nearby ditch and Boulder Creek, an assertion that experts have questioned because groundwater must eventually flow to Boulder Creek and therefore likely turns back to the southeast shortly after leaving the property.

As it did with the much-maligned Valmont Butte cleanup, the city is remediating the property through the state’s Voluntary Cleanup Program (VCUP). The VCUP is an arrangement between the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency that permits parties to perform their own remediation of contaminated sites when they aren’t serious enough to qualify for the Superfund National Priorities List. According to a memorandum of agreement between the CDPHE and EPA, the VCUP is encouraged “due to limited resources, the need to prioritize sites and the need to expedite cleanup action” in cases where facilities are being transferred, redeveloped or reused. The VCUP “is tasked to operate quickly and with a minimum of administrative processes and cost,” the agreement states.

Officials from the CDPHE, the city and Xcel have denied that the VCUP is a way to fast-track cleanups on the cheap, to avoid cumbersome and expensive EPA procedures as well as limit the EPA’s ability to require additional cleanup in the future.

But Allen Hatheway, who wrote a 1,400-page book titled Remediation of Former Manufactured Gas Plants and Other Coal-Tar Sites and is considered one of the nation’s top authorities on the topic, has been an outspoken critic of the VCUP approach. After being provided a copy of the city’s remediation plan, he responded with a fou-rpage letter lambasting the city for not doing a more thorough cleanup and questioning why the Public Service Company of Colorado is not helping fund the project. (Public Service owned the Federal Gas Company from the 1920s until 1963, and Xcel Energy now owns Public Service, but Xcel officials have attempted to separate themselves from liability even while gaining approval from the Public Utilities Commission to pass along any future cleanup or legal costs associated with the site to ratepayers.)

“It’s kind of the same thing with Valmont, not that either of them are pleasant, but the city goes and does what it needs to do to get the VCUP and deals with the regulatory agencies,” Mayor Matt Appelbaum told BW. “I know people may have some concerns about that process, but it’s the process we have to follow, or else we’re on the hook for eternity, plus it gets it cleaned up.”

The city’s VCUP application was filed on Oct. 18 and approved by Mark Rudolph of the CDPHE four days later. In his approval letter, Rudolph says that “if fully and properly implemented,” the plan “will attain a degree of cleanup and control of hazardous substances and gases, such that the property does not present an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment based on the property’s proposed future use, which is commercial.”

Hatheway says that the quick turnaround in and of itself should be a red flag, because usually the state asks follow-up questions as the slow wheels of bureaucracy turn.

“No one ever does that,” he says of the hasty approval. “This thing was greased. It’s very unusual that within a week they just sign it off. Normally, that would take a couple of months.”

Rudolph did not respond to a request for comment.

The plan The cleanup is scheduled to begin in early January, with project completion in “approximately April 2014,” according to city spokesperson Mike Bañuelos. The Boulder County Farmers’ Market, which is held along 13th Street next to the property, opens on the first Saturday in April, and officials hope the project is completed before then.

In its 93-page application, prepared by consultant USA Environment, L.P., the city details how it will excavate the contaminated soil, water and underground elements of the gasification plant, including pipes, oil tanks and gas holders. It also describes findings from additional soil bore tests and ground water monitoring wells since March. (City officials refused to discuss those findings with BW until the VCUP application was filed.)

In the months of March, April, June and September, the city took soil boring samples at 11 different locations, turning two of those bore holes into additional groundwater monitoring wells, bringing the total to 10 wells on the property.

The testing confirmed what many suspected, that there are multiple volatile organic compounds and semi-volatile organic compounds in the soil and groundwater at the site, typical of what is found at former manufactured gas plants. The primary contaminant, as expected, is naphthalene. That and several of the other contaminants at the site are classified by the EPA as probable human carcinogens capable of causing cancer and other serious health issues in humans and animals.

The VCUP application also includes an analysis of the 74 wells located within a half-mile of the site, accompanied by assurances that most of the wells have been abandoned or are not in operation, and that all addresses around the wells are hooked up to the city’s water supply. The study concludes that “it is not likely that these locations would be affected by the groundwater conditions related to the historic [manufactured gas plant] operations at the site.”

The application outlines the city’s plans to excavate and “dewater” seven feet of soil across an 18,600-square-foot rectangle encompassing the entire plaza along the north side of the teahouse as well as most of the teahouse parking lot. In some areas, like around the highly contaminated “relief holder” that was partially excavated for the first time in March, up to 18 feet of soil will be removed. The plan says between 7,000 and 8,000 cubic yards of earth is expected to be dug up and hauled off to “an approved facility,” to be replaced with clean fill dirt. Workers will set up a “ventilated structure to control odors and vapor emissions during excavation and removal activities” as a way “to optimize protection of workers and the general public,” according to the plan.

The plan also calls for the deepest excavations to include removal of groundwater.

“Dewatering efforts will be sustained during the deeper excavation activities to maintain a lowered groundwater table at the site, as well as to create an inward gradient for the removal of impacted groundwater,” the application states. “Groundwater recovered during the dewatering activities will be containerized temporarily on-site for subsequent disposal to the city’s sewer system in accordance with city waste-water utility guidelines.”

After the project is complete, the city plans to check groundwater through the monitoring wells quarterly “for a period of up to two years” and thereafter on “a semi-annual basis, as needed, to confirm a stable or declining trend in [contaminants of concern] concentrations at the site.”

New questions New maps in the VCUP raise questions about the city’s assertion that groundwater flows to the northeast at the site. One illustration (see map on page 13) shows the most contaminated soil extending from the relief holder to the east, suggesting that the plume spreads more toward Boulder Creek than to the northeast. In addition, a cross-section in the VCUP shows the plume working its way downward. Hatheway confirms that gas plant contamination spreads down-gradient, like groundwater should.

“It has to,” he says. In response to a request for comment, city spokesperson Bañuelos says the consultant told him the reason for excavating in that area is due to contaminated soil being in that area, but that there are “other factors, in addition to groundwater flow direction, that would impact subsurface [non-aqueous phase liquids] distribution.”

In his Dec. 13 letter to responding to the VCUP application at the request of BW, Hatheway says the city has “sold its citizens down the river” because by filing the VCUP, it has legally become the “responsible party” for the eventual cleanup, letting Xcel and Public Service off the hook for their potential liability.

“That is not our understanding,” Mayor Appelbaum says.

Bañuelos confirmed that “at this time, there is no agreed split between the city and Xcel,” and that “costs will initially be absorbed by the city, with cost sharing to be pursued with other responsible parties.”

But Hatheway says the city should have gained a commitment from Xcel to share in the cleanup costs.

“Approval of the city’s application to take responsibility from Xcel … grants only that the city has formalized its mortgage on the community resources of its own citizenry,” Hatheway writes.

He chastises the city for glossing over the site’s history and disregarding BW’s series “as a body of evidence that should be considered part of the public record.” He questions why the reputable and respected consultant Environmental Resources Management, which had previously done work for the city at the site, was supplanted by USA Environmental. He also criticizes USA Environmental for claiming that there is some “attenuation,” or natural reduction, of contaminants at the site over time, saying the contamination is not degrading, but spreading.

He renews his previous call for the Dushanbe Teahouse to be disassembled and put in storage, on Xcel’s dime, while an exhaustive remediation of the entire property is conducted.

“It seems quite odd indeed, that Boulder’s well-known environmentally sensitive citizenry are not incensed over the declaratory actions of the city to protect Xcel from its rightful fiscal liability in remediation, on the one hand, and to place its own citizens at some unknown degree of real health risks, in order to protect the interests of the utility company,” Hatheway writes. “If the city stands for absolving Xcel of its rightful responsibility, then actions such as would bring about a referendum vote might be appropriate. … The public does not deserve to be sacrificed at the altar of the forthcoming remedial-taxation burden for special interests, and surely not while it is protected healthwise only by the self-serving ‘not to worry’ risk assessments brought forth by unidentified consultant parties or unknown academic, technical and experiential qualifications.”

In response to Hatheway’s letter, the city issued the following prepared statement: “The City of Boulder’s process and decision-making relative to the 13th Street Plaza remediation work has been and remains open and transparent. The city’s Voluntary Cleanup Plan (Plan) is aggressive. The Plan requires, in the next few months, the excavation of the remaining manufactured gas plant (MGP) source material and infrastructure, as needed. This will accelerate the cleanup, while limiting disruptions to public access to the heavily used Plaza area, particularly during the busy Farmer’s Market season. USA Environmental’s scientists and engineers have considerable experience with the Colorado Voluntary Cleanup Program and MGP site cleanups. There is no requirement that a VCUP application be signed by a registered engineer or other environmental professional. As required by the VCUP program, at the completion of remediation, the city will submit a certification from a qualified environmental professional that the Plan has been fully implemented. Cleanup funding is part of the city’s ongoing discussions with Xcel about the cleanup planning.”

‘Do it right’ In a subsequent phone interview, Hatheway says the city has left itself plenty of wiggle room to avoid fully remediating the property, using terms in the application like “to the extent possible” and leaving the door open to on-site assessments at the time of the cleanup.

“There is a certain imprecision built into the wording to allow wide latitude in its response,” he says. “Do it right, do it once, and protect the health and solvency of the citizens of Boulder.”

Mayor Appelbaum says the question of how much Xcel will be required to contribute to the remediation is still an open one, and it will be decided later.

“Both parties agree it’s got to be cleaned up, so you go ahead and you clean it up, and the city usually puts in the lion’s share of that funding, just to get it done,” he says. “After all, it’s on city property. Then you negotiate, once you know the final cost, you negotiate who has to pay what, and then, the worst circumstance, I guess, you litigate it. It would be nice if it didn’t have to get to that, but we’re talking about several million dollars. I wouldn’t be shocked if there was some disagreement.”

But Appelbaum adds that if the gas company was primarily responsible for the contamination, Xcel should pay for the majority of the cleanup.

“If you buy a company that’s being sued for something, you inherit the liability,” he says. “It needs to be fair. Who caused it? If the city is part of the cause, as clearly we were at Valmont, yeah, we’re going to pay for part of that. … I have no doubt we’ll pay for part of it. At 13th Street it’s a little less clear what our role is.”

Appelbaum acknowledged that while he hasn’t heard that the BW series played a role in the city’s approach to the cleanup, it’s “possible that because of some stuff you wrote people looked at it a little more carefully or a little differently.”

Xcel spokesperson Michelle Aguayo told BW that her company initially wanted to take the lead on cleaning up the property, but city officials declined. She says the city has awarded the contract for the cleanup to an environmental remediation contractor called Envirocon.

In response to a question about the extent to which her company would acknowledge liability and help share the costs of the project, she told BW, “What I can tell you is Xcel has contributed resources and financial assistance to the city for the project to date.

The city as the property owner has decided to move forward with the project at its own cost for now but the city continues to seek technical input and other assistance from Xcel. We intend to continue to work cooperatively with the city on this project.”