City’s cleanup of teahouse site actually deserves kudos

It surprised me as well




At first I thought it might just be the holiday season or perhaps the sense of optimism that tends to wash over me with the start of each new year. Whatever it was, I initially assumed it was tainting my perspective and clogging my journalistic BS filter. What I was thinking just had to be skewed somehow. As I read and reread the city’s plans for remediating the old town-gas-plant contamination under the 13th Street Plaza and Dushanbe Teahouse, I kept coming to the same unsettling conclusion; the city had put together a pretty darn good plan.


I know, it surprised me as well.

After all, I spend most of my life analyzing and reporting on what local governments and city bureaucrats are doing poorly, and properly remediating contamination tends to be a recurring theme on the city-screwed-it-up list.

Don’t get me wrong. I make no apologies for my critical eye towards government at every level. It’s my job. We in the news media are supposed to tell you about the metaphorical plane that crashed, not the 700 that landed safely without incident.

But last week as we were putting together our update on the city’s voluntary cleanup plan (VCUP) for the 13th Street Plaza site, it struck me that in my two decades of reporting on various contaminated properties owned by municipalities in Boulder County, this was the first time that a cleanup plan didn’t make fast and cheap its primary priorities.

Not once, until now, have I seen a remediation plan wherein the public’s health and the environment seemed to be a legitimate top concern.

I could provide numerous examples of impotent cleanup attempts at this juncture to make my point, but that would not be in keeping with the honest intent of this column. I genuinely want to compliment the City of Boulder, from the council to the manager and attorney right down to the project managers in the utilities department who are no longer allowed to talk to us directly. ( Just saying there is still room for improvement in how the city handles tough questions it doesn’t want to answer, but that’s a column for another day.)

It would have been easy for the city to try and claim that the cement over the plaza was plenty of protection for the public, or that because nearby residents aren’t drinking well water the contamination posed little risk, or even that the migrating groundwater contamination doesn’t eventually have to flow into Boulder Creek … well, actually the city did claim all those things, but that doesn’t matter now.

What matters today is that the city didn’t use those excuses to do as little as possible at the site. I don’t know why exactly, but instead of excusing a quickie Band-Aid approach to the problem, Boulder made the bold and correct decision to spend more than $4 million to dig up and remove the majority of the contamination from under the plaza and dispose of the hazardous waste properly once and for all.

No jokes here. If the city fulfills its VCUP and doesn’t use any of the wiggle words it wrote into the plan like “to the best of our ability” or “when possible,” then it will have done by far the most thorough cleanup of a contaminated property in the city’s history.

Is the city’s plan perfect? Nope. As pointed out by Allen Hatheway, one of the nation’s top experts on remediating town gas sites, who examined the city’s plan at BW’s request, a complete remediation would have included the city taking down the Dushanbe Teahouse and removing all of the soil and groundwater under the site to bedrock, as well as sucking up the contaminated groundwater plume that has moved off property, and cleaning it as well.

Hatheway also pointed out that the city should not have filed the VCUP with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, taking full economic responsibility for the project on its own instead of seeking reimbursement from the company that originally polluted the property. That company was Federal Gas, an entity subsequently purchased by Public Service Company, which is now owned by Xcel Energy.

I don’t disagree with Hatheway.

And I’m sure that the city will eventually do what it can to be reimbursed by Xcel, which has already been given permission by the Public Utilities Commission to pass along any expense it may incur as a result of the contamination at the teahouse site to its utility customers.

That said, what the city is committing to do should not be diminished. It is taking responsible action now to solve a potential public health problem. It would cost as much as an additional $6 million to $8 million to take down, store and then reassemble the teahouse. And the truth is, we know from our research conducted previously that the south side of the contaminated property underlying the teahouse was never the portion of the property that was the most heavily contaminated by the former town gas plant.

What the city is proposing on paper is not the perfect plan, but it is a fairly comprehensive cleanup and I, for one, applaud all those involved for the decision to do at the 13th Street property what has never been done before, namely, the right thing for the public’s health and the environment.

BW will continue to monitor the city’s efforts to remediate the teahouse site over the coming months. We will be appropriately skeptical and watch for any backtracking or attempt to alter the proposed plan in a way that could result in leaving behind a contamination problem that will need to be addressed again in the future.

But I have to repeat that based on the plan, I believe that the cleanup the city is going to do at the teahouse demonstrates that it may well have turned a corner on its commitment to our health and the environment. Lets hope so.

For now, I am pleased to report that a plane has safely landed.