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.
Few would argue with the idea that the Dushanbe Teahouse, with its ornate designs, bold colors and intricate details, is one of the most beautiful and significant architectural achievements in Boulder County, or even the state, for that matter.
But we now know that this cultural gem is sitting on top of a soup of contamination left behind by the old Federal Gas Company plant that manufactured gas from coal and oil at this same location on 13th Street during the first half of the last century.
In the two earlier installments of this series, which are available here and here, BW has done extensive reporting on the history of the teahouse as well as the contamination at its current location, including what levels of contamination are present in the soil and groundwater at the site — as well as the potential dangers these carcinogenic toxins may pose now and in the future.
In this, the third part of our series, we are examining how the current contaminated location of the teahouse came to be chosen from among the dozens of potential sites that were available to the project at the time of its construction in 1997.
Reexamining the teahouse site selection process is important for several reasons. Primary among them is it appears that there has long been an inadequate process for getting accurate information concerning contamination from experts to city staff — and eventually to the decision-makers on city council. As a result of this often-flawed information chain, the city has on numerous occasions made costly, misinformed land-acquisition and land-use decisions, such as those surrounding the Valmont Butte, Beech Aircraft and now the Dushanbe Teahouse properties. Each of these parcels was known by city staff to be heavily contaminated either before the city purchased the land or, at a minimum, before the city chose to develop the property. Yet in each case, the city council was either not informed of this fact or the contamination problems were downplayed as insignificant, only to come back and haunt the city’s budget at a later date.
As a result of our elected representatives not being given all of the information needed to make informed decisions, the public has had to pick up the tab — several million dollars to date — for very costly environmental remediation, remediation that could and should have been shifted to the actual historic polluters of the property.
But even among these examples, locating the teahouse on top of the old Federal Gas facility stands out. It appears that the city council charged with making the decision at that time on where to put the teahouse, on behalf of the rest of us, was either intentionally misled about the contamination at the site, or gross incompetence engulfed the highest levels of city government, including the city manager at the time, Tim Honey, and several of his department managers.
Based on an examination of public records kept by the City of Boulder, the Environmental Protection Agency and other sources, it appears that city staff may have withheld critical information or even provided false information to council regarding the contamination at the 13th Street site in an effort to push through construction of the teahouse in 1997.
Had accurate and complete information been conveyed to council, it is likely that the site would either have been properly remediated before the teahouse was built — doing pre-construction cleanup in 1997 would have cost taxpayers a fraction of the cost that the city is now facing post-construction in 2013 — or perhaps the council would have chosen an alternate, uncontaminated location near downtown for the structure. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.
• • • •
After Leslie Durgin became mayor in 1989, the task force she formed to develop recommendations on where to put the teahouse examined more than 30 possible locations.
Durgin recalls initially thinking Chautauqua would be a good spot.
“None of us had seen this thing,” Durgin told BW. “We had no idea how big it was. I thought it was a little pagoda, a little kiosk. I thought it was going to be like a pavilion.”
Former City Manager Tim Honey says the inquiry into possible sites was exhaustive.
“Every issue, pro and con, was raised,” he remembers. “It was one of those Boulder process things where no stone was left unturned.”
Former City Manager Tim Honey
Stones may well have been turned, but what remains unclear is who exactly was privy to what lay beneath them. Those most closely involved in bringing the teahouse to the 13th Street Plaza in the 1990s have varying recollections about which city leaders knew what about the contamination at the time.
Vern Seieroe, the architect who oversaw the teahouse project, recalls that prominent local business owner Frank Day and a teahouse task force had assembled a group of banks to provide the financial backing for him to run a restaurant in the teahouse, but after it came to light that the property in consideration had been a gasification plant and was a possible Superfund site, the banks got cold feet because it was too much risk.
If the contamination was making banks jumpy, perhaps it should have made the city more cautious as well. None of the council members serving at the time who were contacted for this story recalled being told about the banks backing out because of contamination concerns. It certainly seems like the kind of information that the final decision-makers on such an expensive, high-profile, publicly funded project should have had.
“The environmental conditions stopped the money, which stopped the project,” Seieroe recalls, adding that the future of the teahouse, which had been sitting in boxes in the city’s wastewater treatment plant for years, was up in the air.
“Do you send it back?” he asks. “Sell it? You go through all options. It wasn’t like we had a right to sell it.”
In a July 4, 1996, memo to city officials, including City Manager Tim Honey, Teahouse Project Manager Angela McCormick and Will Fleissig of the Department of Community Design, Planning and Development, Seieroe requested an extension for obtaining a building permit. He wrote, “The existence of this condition prevents all development until it is determined that the contamination does not pose a hazard to public health or that the hazard is mitigated. Further, given that fact, the project cannot secure financing.”
At wit’s end, Seieroe says, he and other teahouse proponents turned to Honey, who, along with then- Mayor Durgin, helped shepherd a financing plan through City Council that relied on $700,000 from the sale of water rights to Broomfield, which, by the way, “turned around and built a mall that killed ours.”
He called it a last-minute addition to the budget, and says “there was some heartburn with that I don’t want to go into.”
Honey has a different version of why Day’s proposal for the teahouse didn’t come to fruition, and it doesn’t involve contamination. He says Day was the only bidder, and he planned to run a pizza parlor out of the teahouse, which everyone agreed wasn’t a suitable use for a teahouse from Tajikistan.
“My recollection is that was the only proposal that came in, and it was just not considered an appropriate use, a pizza parlor for the teahouse,” Honey told BW. “I have a recollection of a conversation with Frank which was, if you want to have a different type of use there, if you want to have something that is reflective of the cultural asset that the teahouse is, then you’re going to have to think about different financing than just commercial financing.”
Honey says it was then that city officials turned to the idea of public financing for the project.
But Mary Axe, president of the board of directors for the Boulder-Dushanbe Sister Cities Committee and chair of the Teahouse Trust told BW this week that indeed it was the banks’ reluctance to finance a contaminated property that caused the Frank Day proposal to fall apart, not the idea of a pizza parlor.
“My understanding was it was because the banks would not loan to start construction on a site that was contaminated, that they would lose financially,” she says.
Day didn’t return calls before press time.
Durgin, like Honey, says she has no recollection of banks getting cold feet about investing in a business located on contaminated land, despite Seieroe’s claim that it was she and Honey who had pushed through the $700,000 public financing plan because the banks had pulled out. Durgin may not remember the banks balking at the site’s contamination, but she does acknowledge pushing the project through after years of frustration.
“The whole thing just felt like it was start and stop, one step forward and two steps back,” she says. “I went to Tim Honey, who was city manager, and I said, let’s get this thing done, it’s taken forever. … I was not going to run for re-election, and I said I just want to get this thing done. Did we accelerate the discussion and decision-making? Yes. We did. We did, no question.”
• • • •
What city staff knew about contamination at the teahouse location prior to construction is critical to assessing how the site was eventually chosen. The following is a description and timeline of what the paper trail confirms that city staff actually knew — and when they knew it — as opposed to what they now claim to remember.
The Federal Gas Company plant in an undated photo.
• 11/4/94 — EPA files a Potential Hazardous Waste Site Identification form. It states, “Potential contamination from gas production utilizing coke and oil with byproducts of tar coke and ammonia” may have affected the 13th Street site’s “local groundwater, surface water and on-site soils.” It lists the contact for the property as Bill Hudson of the City of Boulder’s Facilities Management Department.
• 11/15/94 — A fax from Katy Larson of URS Consultants, the environmental assessment company contracted by the EPA to work on the former Federal Gas site that had been listed as a potential Superfund site, was sent to Pat Smith at the EPA. The fax describes the 13th Street site and states that the city intended to build a teahouse on the location beginning in December 1994. A handwritten note at the bottom of the fax says that City of Boulder Construction Project Manager Stephanie Westhusin was called at 11:30 am. It also says a follow-up letter was being sent to the city.
• 11/22/94 — The EPA officially notifies the City of Boulder that it has identified the 13th Street site as the former Federal Gas facility location, and states that the agency is aware that the city is preparing to begin construction at the property. The document further informs the City of Boulder — both the Transportation Department and the City Attorney’s office — that the site “is undergoing routine screening as a potential hazardous waste site under Superfund. This site will be entered in the Superfund database, CERCLIS, as the Federal Gas Company. A preliminary assessment (PA) is in progress and should be complete within 12 weeks. Wastes associated with former town gas, or coal gasification, sites include polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phthalates, and inorganics. The most mobile component in groundwater might be naphthalene. Naphthalene smells like moth balls and can be smelled at a low concentration. PAHs are generally immobile in the subsurface, but they can be very mobile in gasoline contaminated ground water, which is not uncommon in urban areas. Coal tars, including PAHs, are almost black to brown, thick liquid or semi-solid, and viscous.”
The document ends with this request, “Please notify me if you encounter coal tar residues during your activities.”
• 1/12/95 — the EPA sends a complete copy of its Preliminary Assessment (PA) of the teahouse site to the Boulder City Attorney’s office and the city’s Department of Transportation. The PA includes a map showing that the old gas plant sat directly on the property where the city was already constructing a pedestrian mall and intended to build the Dushanbe Teahouse. It also states that as much as 2 million gallons of contamination may have been disposed of at the site.
• 3/15/95 — A 39-page report by Huntingdon Engineering & Environmental, Inc. is sent to the City of Boulder Transportation Department. Huntingdon had been contracted by the city to clean up a toxic liquid spill at the 13th Street site and have it tested. This report informed the city that “a ‘coal tar’-like substance was encountered during trenching activities performed at the site related to placement of underground utilities in the outdoor pedestrian plaza that was under construction.” The report also states that it was Stephanie Westhusin, an employee at the city’s Department of Transportation, who informed Huntingdon that the site “is in the vicinity of an historic coal gasification plant.”
• 4/5/95 — The City of Boulder Department of Public Works sent a cover letter and a copy of Huntingdon’s 39-page report to the EPA, attn: Pat Smith. Sue Ellen Harrison of the Boulder City Attorney’s office is also copied on the correspondence.
• 3/12/96 — A 67-page environmental report titled “Phase II Environmental Subsurface Soil Investigation Dushanbe Teahouse site, 13th and Canyon Street” is prepared by Maxim Technologies and given to the city. Maxim was hired as a consultant by the City of Boulder to assess the soil contamination at the teahouse site. The final report states that it was prepared for “City of Boulder, Department of Community Design, Planning and Development, attn: Ms. Angela McCormick.”
Maxim’s subsurface investigation at the teahouse site found substantial amounts of contamination in the soils. Maxim also reported that the groundwater it encountered had a gray sheen on the surface and was likely contaminated from the Federal Gas plant toxins found in the soil. Perhaps most importantly, the report stated the following:
“Based upon the subsurface investigation, volatile and semi-volatile compounds are widely distributed across the site. The presence of these compounds is consistent with historic onsite activities at the FGS [Federal Gas] facility. Since several of the compounds detected are carcinogenic, their presence in subsurface soils represents a potential concern to human health and the environment.
“Since the EPA has recently performed a preliminary assessment of the site and an investigation is pending, the client should submit the findings of this report to the EPA to assist in their evaluation.
“It is possible that the groundwater beneath the site may be impacted because of the contaminated soils. If the city intends to proceed with site development at this time, Maxim recommends a groundwater investigation be performed prior to construction. The purpose of the investigation is to evaluate the groundwater impacts and whether the site is likely to require cleanup.”
• • • •
As evidenced by the documents above and others not listed, the City of Boulder staff had been fully aware of the Dushanbe Teahouse location’s former use as a town gas manufacturing plant by the Federal Gas Company since at least 1994. As further evidenced by the documents above, the city had also been aware for at least three years prior to the beginning of construction on the teahouse that the 13th Street site was substantially contaminated. During this three-year window, several other possible locations for the teahouse were being actively discussed. The question is, why would city council push to put the teahouse on the only contaminated site of those being considered? There is a likely explanation.
Despite what appears to be clear knowledge to the contrary, a very different message regarding contamination at 13th Street was being presented to city council.
In a March 12, 1997, memo to city council from Tim Honey, Angela McCormick and Will Fleissig regarding the proposal to issue a $700,000 loan from Windy Gap funds for the construction of the teahouse — a loan that, according to several sources, was desperately needed to save the teahouse project following the loss of support from the banks — the following statements concerning contamination were made:
“It is unlikely that a primary source for any of the soil contaminants exists on the Teahouse site. It is likely that the source of the contamination is emanating from an off-site location near the Teahouse parcel.”
BW has been investigating the teahouse contamination for more than 10 months. During that time, we have made an exhaustive search of the public records concerning this site, from 1902 to the present. Yet we have been unable to locate any documentation in the City of Boulder’s records, those at the EPA or other sources that could be construed to support these statements made in 1997 to city council members at a critical time in the siting process.
In fact, all evidence points to city staff, including those authoring the memo, as having been fully aware that the teahouse site had been a former gas manufacturing facility, and that as a result, contamination was widely spread throughout the site. Staff had also been made aware — many times over several years — that the 13th Street site was the source of all of the contamination that had been discovered. All of this was known prior to these two statements to council, which were inaccurate at best.
Who actually made the decision to tell council members that the site was not the source of the contamination and that the contamination had come to the property from some other location is not necessarily clear. We only know whose names are on the March 12, 1997, memo.
The electromagnetic survey map mentioned in the March 12, 1997 memo to city council.
When asked what off-site property the memo was referring to as the source of contamination, Honey replied via email: “I have a vague recollection that the site we were looking at was the Open Space building across the street. I can categorically state that there was no intention to deceive or cover up.” He later clarified that the facility he was referring to was not, in fact, across the street. It is the Atrium Building, located next door to the teahouse on the north side, at the corner of 13th and Canyon, but there is no evidence that that property was ever part of a gas manufacturing operation.
If the purpose of presenting this misleading information to council was to hurry the loan process and get the teahouse built at 13th Street, it clearly worked.
Also contained in the same March 12, 1997, memo was a description of an upcoming electromagnetic imaging of the site that had been scheduled to be performed later that same week. The memo’s authors pledged to report back to council if there were any pipes and tanks still located on the teahouse site that the subsurface imaging might discover.
Sure enough, recordings of the March 18, 1997, city council meeting reveal that Honey did give a brief report on the contamination and some pipes that were discovered by way of the imaging. This report was also accompanied by reassurances that the substances encountered posed no real threat.
Honey told council members that one of the issues with the project was “our concern that there might be some environmental issues associated with the site, because when we constructed the plaza, we did come across some, um, material and some substances that gave us some concern. And so we have done an extensive environmental analysis of the site, including doing what I call an ultrasound imaging of what is below the surface.
“And if any of you were over there on the site today, you would see some pipes that we have uncovered,” Honey continued. “And we now, I think, fully understand what was going on on that site, approximately 100 years ago, and we are satisfied that we do not have any significant environmental problems, and that there is no need to do any further work with the [Community and Environmental Assessment Process.]”
Strangely, Honey never mentioned to council members that the imaging had also detected buried tanks and the subsurface remains of the old gas holders, the very items that we now know represent the highest levels of contamination on the property and most likely the costliest remediation problems the city faces in 2013.
At the same time that Honey was assuring council that the contamination was not a problem and that the environmental assessment process had been closed, there was still debate among council members about whether to choose the 13th Street site, the civic use pad at Ninth Street and Canyon Boulevard or a late-arriving offer of a site at Celestial Seasonings.
Staff ’s misinformation to council regarding the 13th Street site’s contamination likely played a major role in the majority of council’s willingness to move forward with building the teahouse at its current location.
Contamination wasn’t even a substantive issue at the meeting once Honey had offered his assurances of its insignificance. Council members kicked around the merits of the sites — and a few questioned the use of taxpayer money for the construction of the teahouse. But only one member raised a single concern about the contamination at the 13th Street site.
Lisa Morzel noted that the Bureau of Conferences and Cultural Affairs had been willing to underwrite a percentage of the cost of the project, “but they could not do so because of the contamination issues on 13th Street.
“I think the issue is to get it off of 13th Street,” she continued, “and put it on Ninth and Canyon, and that way we don’t have to deal with the contaminated land.”
Council member Bob Greenlee offered a substitute motion to form another committee to perform a final 10-week evaluation of each scenario for the teahouse. Spense Havlick seconded the motion, but it failed in a 3-6 vote. Morzel joined the two in voting for it.
Boulder City Council in 1996. From left, in back row, Spense Havlick, Gary Myer, Bob Greenlee and Steve Pomerance. In front row, Allyn Feinberg, Leslie Durgin, B.J. Miller, Don Mock and Lisa Morzel.
The majority spoke in favor of the 13th Street site, and the original motion passed 6-3, giving a green light to the plan for financing construction of the teahouse at the 13th Street Plaza. Only Morzel, Greenlee and Havlick voted against it.
“I think it’s time to get this issue behind us,” council member Don Mock said, according to the recording of that meeting. “It’s maybe not the best outcome, but at least, for me, it’s an acceptable one.”
“I think the site happens to be the right site,” added council member Steve Pomerance.
“I am strongly in favor of this site,” Durgin said, “and strongly in favor of using public funding, although I know it is different than we believed would be necessary in 1989, to put up this community treasure and to celebrate it, and not regret it, celebrate it.”
Council member Tom Eldridge commented, “I think this is the best site that we have now, I think we ought to go ahead with this.”
And former council member Allyn Feinberg said, “I’ve supported this project strongly for a long time, and have thought that the 13th Street site was really, really a good site for a public building.”
• • • •
The final report on the Community and Environmental Assessment Process for the teahouse states that the “amount of contaminated soil on the site does not mandate a clean-up under any current state or federal program. The soils on site will be excavated during the course of the foundation work, and the soils will be properly disposed of.” The report later refers to that soil as “approximately 3,000 cubic yards of dirt which is known to have low levels of petroleum-based contaminant in it.”
This final assessment makes it sound as if the contamination problem on 13th Street was remediated during the construction of the teahouse, but as we now know, this was hardly the case. In fact, the depth of the teahouse excavation for the foundation was lessened because the old gas plant pipes were a problem, due to their potential for leaking contamination during their removal. So it was eventually decided that the pipes should be left in place and simply encased in the teahouse’s cement foundation, where they still reside, along with any liquid contaminants still within them.
City staff actually told those constructing the teahouse, and the city’s own environmental consultant who was monitoring the construction process, to leave all contamination in place unless it had to be disturbed to accomplish the erection of the teahouse.
Despite the discrepancies previously described, Durgin says she is confident that Honey did not downplay the significance of the contamination to ensure passage of the teahouse plan.
“Knowing Tim as I do, and knowing the kind of work he did as a city manager, I am confident he did not hide or bury or give short shrift to information,” she says. “I really am.”
“Nothing was suppressed in this process,” Honey adds. “Absolutely nothing was suppressed. Everything was out there in the open.
… I wouldn’t try to second-guess whether we made the right decision or not. We made the best possible decision, based on the information that we were required to gather regarding the siting of the teahouse. Everything was above-board and done out in the public.”
Durgin says everyone genuinely believed that the contamination was not a big issue after consultants performed an environmental assessment.
“They basically said, ‘Yes, it was used years ago as a site that probably generated some contaminants, but that that is not a worry, they are not moving, they are buried deep in the soil, you can go ahead,’” she recalls. “And we knew we were going to have to create a foundation for this thing, and they said, ‘You can do it without concern.’ … It just seemed like a lovely place to make it contiguous to the farmers’ market. I think it’s a great site, actually. We were told by the city administration, based on the consultant’s report, that contamination was not a problem, not an issue.”
She adds that council was told that “the stuff is there, but it’s buried deep, it isn’t moving, it’s all around the pipes. You’re going to build up, so you’re not going to really disturb a lot of the soil, not to worry.”
But, as reported earlier, that isn’t actually what the consultants said, at least it isn’t what they put in writing and signed their names to, although it does sound a lot like what staff was telling council. In the only substantial subsurface investigation done prior to construction, Maxim, the city’s consultant, told the city, “Based upon the subsurface investigation, volatile and semi-volatile compounds are widely distributed across the site. … Several of the compounds detected are carcinogenic, their presence in subsurface soils represents a potential concern to human health and the environment. … The client [the city] should submit the findings of this report to the EPA to assist in their evaluation. … It is possible that the groundwater beneath the site may be impacted because of the contaminated soils. If the city intends to proceed with site develop ment at this time, Maxim recommends a groundwater investigation be performed prior to construction.”
No groundwater investigation was ever conducted at the site prior to building the teahouse. And inexplicably, it appears, based on records provided to BW by the EPA, city staff may have failed to turn over a copy of that Maxim Phase II soils report to the EPA, as its consultant had recommended.
We say inexplicably because a subsequent Maxim report, created just two months later for tests of surface water and sediment in the area was, in fact, turned over to the EPA. That report, unlike the phase II report, found that the contamination in the surface water/sediment, while present, was either untraceable to the teahouse site or not high enough to warrant remediation. The answer to why the positive report made it to the EPA while the more critical one seems not to have, based on a search of EPA records, like many unanswered questions regarding contamination beneath the teahouse, likely rests with the actions of city staff.
Durgin now acknowledges that she would have scrutinized the 13th Street site more closely had she been aware of what is currently being uncovered there.
“Frankly, knowing what I know now, having done a site in Denver that used to be a gas station, I’d ask a whole lot more questions now than I knew to ask then,” she says. “Knowing what I know now, would I ask for a couple of environmental assessments and really look at the results? You bet. I honestly don’t think people would have shortchanged the environmental concerns if they had been as heightened as they sound like in your articles.”
But she says the suggestion by Allen Hatheway, a national expert on contamination and remediation of historic manufactured gas plant sites, that the teahouse should be dismantled and the site thoroughly remediated before reassembling the teahouse in its old spot, is taking things a bit too far.
“Take it down?” Durgin says incredulously. “Geez Louise! Holy camoly! I’d get a couple more opinions on that one.”
• • • •
Honey claims that he doesn’t remember interacting with the EPA over those four years, or the problems with securing bank financing due to the site’s contamination, but he says he does recall there being tremendous pressure to bring the teahouse project to fruition after it sat in storage for so many years, including opinion pieces in the Daily Camera that were “relentless” in saying the city needed to make up its mind: Either build the thing or send it back.
“They editorialized on that constantly,” he says. “The pressure was the embarrassment of this sitting at the wastewater treatment plant for almost a decade.”
The former city manager doesn’t recall working with the EPA, or whether the groundwater was ever tested, but he insists that the environmental assessment of the property didn’t raise any significant red flags.
“I would imagine if the EPA said that’s a requirement they had to get to the bottom of it, we would have tested for groundwater,” he says.
“If it hadn’t gotten the green light, we wouldn’t have put the teahouse there,” Honey explains. “We were following the regulations that were in place, in terms of how you deal with this kind of issue, and if something else has turned up since then, then maybe there’s a problem there, I don’t know.”
When asked why the 13th Street property was chosen over non-contaminated sites, he replies, “It was just going to make it a very exciting, dynamic, desirable place, and as it turned out, that’s what happened.”
“We struggled with where we were going to put the damn thing for years,” recalls former council member Greenlee. “And then, when it came about that there might be this location, you know, I think everybody was pretty enthusiastic about it. I don’t think there was much, if any, discussion about the issue or issues you’ve raised. I just don’t recall that.”
He adds that the city’s approach has always seemed to be let such sleeping dogs lie if regulatory agencies give the green light.
“Generally, the city’s response or reaction to such things is, if there’s some kind of problem environmentally, as long as we get clearance from the various state and local agencies that if we don’t disturb what may be under the ground, we’re clear and we can do whatever we want,” he says.
Similarly, former city council member Havlick doesn’t remember anything about contamination at the site.
“If there was any discussion about it, it didn’t bubble to the surface, no pun intended,” he jokes. “I don’t remember any concerns about that being a contaminated site.”
Havlick says he favored placing the teahouse at one of the other final sites that made the cut, either Ninth and Canyon or at the Boulder Public Library parking lot on the south side of Boulder Creek. He says his opposition to the 13th Street location was based on flood concerns, not contamination.
“I feel badly that I don’t recollect Tim Honey’s memo or remember hearing about it at a council meeting,” Havlick told BW. “I’m deeply concerned that there is contamination beginning to seep away from that site.”
He does agree, however, that this may have been one of the many instances that city staff, who control the information that council receives, guided council members to their preferred outcome. Havlick notes that staff “outlive any elected official, in terms of their job,” because city positions are generally good jobs that see very little turnover.
“The elected officials very seldom have their ideas implemented,” he says. “It seems the staff drive many of these issues. I was naïve enough to think our good ideas would find traction.”
• • • •
Morzel, the sole city council member to mention the contamination during that fateful 1997 meeting, has served on council since 1995, with a brief hiatus between 2003 and 2007. She recalls finding out about alternatives to the 13th Street site only by chance in January 1997, not because the alternative sites were presented to council by staff. She found out when St Julien co-owner Bruce Porcelli told her that he had approached Honey about his interest in having the teahouse at Ninth and Canyon a year earlier. Morzel says she raised the issue at a council meeting and found out about two other possible locations that had been offered: Celestial Seasonings and the now-defunct Crossroads Mall. She recalls gaining council support to direct Honey to present them with the full matrix of options, including what each would cost.
“I was concerned [about the 13th Street site] because I was aware that the Public Service Company had its coal gasification plant there back in the ’50s, and there was potential for identifying contamination, and we’d be stuck with the remediation of that,” Morzel says, adding that the city ended up spending “a lot of money” to do the limited remediation it did do under the teahouse during construction.
“I know we were informed about it, and a lot of work had to be done,” she told BW. “I think the contamination [during construction] was more extensive than we anticipated.”
When informed that no groundwater testing was ever done, Morzel replied, “I would’ve assumed they would have done more thorough testing of the entire situation … That’s surprising and disappointing.”
And as a current council member, Morzel says, she hopes the city gets it right this time.
“I certainly would hope that the city would do a thorough job in properly remediating that site, so that we don’t have to do it again,” she says. “To do something over and over again and get the same result, isn’t that called insanity?
“If the EPA recommended our doing a more thorough remediation and we didn’t, that is unfortunate. The thing is, you pay for that. And it’s not us who are paying for it. It’s the taxpayers.”
But the EPA didn’t tell the city to do more testing in the 1990s. The EPA didn’t tell the city to test the groundwater. Nor did the EPA tell the city it was a good idea to build a teahouse on the site.
BW asked Pat Smith, the EPA official who handled the case in the 1990s, why the groundwater wasn’t checked. Her initial reply?
“Nobody asked me to test the groundwater.”
Sounds a bit like the city’s response — the EPA didn’t require it, so it wasn’t done. Obviously, a bad combination.
What the EPA did do in the 1990s was to look at the site just enough to make the determination that the 13th Street site did not rise to the level of a Superfund site, which would have required quick, decisive action on the part of the federal government to clean it up to protect human health and the environment.
Instead, the EPA relied on the city’s testing, and the site was listed as NFRAPed, which stands for No Further Remedial Action Planned. Smith says today that even if she had had the Maxim report that appears to have been withheld, it probably wouldn’t have changed her NFRAP designation because there weren’t many drinking water wells nearby in the direction of the groundwater flow.
But the NFRAP designation doesn’t mean that the site is just fine the way it is.
Smith concurs that just because a site receives that label from the EPA shouldn’t be construed as meaning it isn’t contaminated or is well-suited for any use.
“I have to tell you, there are a lot of sites with NFRAP designations that have contamination,” she says. “It’s really a signal that you still have due diligence to go find out what’s there. … You [the city] become the steward of that contamination. It’s not a problem for you if you continue to use it in a way that’s safe, protective, but things can change, like if chlorinated hydrocarbons or gas moved into the area and it wasn’t there before, that would be a changed condition.”
And it appears that this is exactly what is happening at the teahouse site, because the EPA reengaged at the site in 2009, sending the city and the site’s former owner, Xcel, into investigation and remediation mode.
Earlier in this series, BW reported that the groundwater monitoring wells put in place to monitor contamination reportedly caused by a spill from a former dry cleaning business just 300 feet away from the 13th Street site had shown contamination consistent with that found on the former Federal Gas site, indicating that the teahouse site contaminants were likely migrating in groundwater.
But more significantly, if the contamination from the 13th Street site is making it to the dry cleaner’s spill site, then the chlorinated hydrocarbons at that site would likely act as a “mobilizer” for the former gas plant’s otherwise slower moving contaminants. And according to Smith, that could be a game-changer for the EPA.
Interestingly, had the city or the EPA bothered to test the groundwater at the teahouse site in the 1990s, they would have discovered that there were already high levels of chlorinated hydrocarbons on site that Smith says could be acting as a mobilizer for the manufactured gas contaminants. But we’ll save the full groundwater story for another part in our teahouse series.
It is important that the current city council — and future councils — be fully and accurately informed regarding the contamination at the teahouse site this time around. As the city plans its future by way of the Civic Area Master Plan, it would be a tragedy to put even more taxpayer money on top of the 13th Street site, only to see it someday wasted as a result of never having fully remediated the site.
As the EPA is quick to point out, what we know about the contamination today can change tomorrow. This is why building on top of contamination without fully remediating a site first is never a good idea.
But it’s hard to make that right decision if you’re never told the truth about the contamination to start with. And that is the lesson of the Dushanbe Teahouse.