The Potomac Yard was initially cleared of environmental contaminants under the Environmental Protection Agency’s “accelerated Superfund cleanup site,” according to a report issued in 2004.
In 1987, when the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac decided to end the rail operation, the EPA identified Potomac Yard “as a potential threat to human health and the environment.” Early assessments found metals in the soils “above health-based levels” and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other dangerous organic compounds.
Before redevelopment of Potomac Yard, for nearly 100 years the 350-acre tract was the largest rail transfer point and train work yard on the East Coast. In its heyday, hundreds of trains and rail cars daily passed through the yard.
In the days of the steam engine, according to William Skrabak, the deputy director of Alexandria’s Transportation and Environmental Services Department, it was the practice of train crews to shovel the coal ash from the steam engines and spread it on the tracks.
Later when diesel engines came into vogue, the old Potomac Yard had giant tanks of diesel oil and refueled engines in the yard. Skrabak said in an era when environmental damage caused little concern there was leakage from the tanks and diesel waste from the refueling process.
One report done by ECS, an environmental risk assessment firm, retained by the Pulte Group, said the yard had some eight underground tanks and four large 25,000 gallon above ground tanks. “Surface spills, releases from underground tanks, and runoff from repair and maintenance activities contributed to subsurface petroleum contamination beneath large portions of the Potomac Yard site,” ECS reported.
Early on, the EPA cleared a 50-acre portion of Potomac Yard in Arlington and it has been partially developed.
In 1991, the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, at EPA’s request, did an environmental assessment of the central operations of the site.
“The most elevated levels of this contamination are contained in Landbay’s G and H, where the Central Operations facilities were located,” Pulte quoted EPA findings. Those two Landbays form what is called “Town Center” and are being developed by MRP and JBG, a joint venture of two development companies.
The other contaminant is what is sometimes called “cinder ballast,” but is also termed “bottom ash” or “coal ash.” This by-product of burning coal “was simply dumped on the ground,” said the Pulte report. It contained metal concentrations “above normal background levels.” According to ECS “cinder ballast” is in soils throughout the 295-acre site.
In 1995, EPA ordered the railroad to begin a cleanup of the yard from East Glebe Road to the Monroe Avenue Bridge. In 2004, the EPA reported this work had been completed.
“All work has been completed at this site. EPA’s requirements made the site safe for people and the environment. By closing and re-grading existing outfalls and re-routing stormwater drains to the Four Mile Run, threats to the ecology were removed,” said an EPA report.
“EPA found that all the work required by the Order has been satisfactorily completed with the exception of the continuous obligation for a stormwater-monitoring program, which continues,” the agency reported.
According to Skrabak’s office, “The entire yard was characterized and remediated where necessary. That being said, the original 1995 risk assessment expected that additional remediation, soil management and health and safety practices would be implemented as needed during future redevelopment to maintain a level of no significant risk and address the contamination remaining on site.”
Skrabak’s office said in an email statement that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality “was involved and completed their regulatory oversight of the original remediation of the petroleum-impacted central operation area, which was used as a locomotive repair, maintenance and refueling area.
“VDEQ is still involved in overseeing this block as the developer has enrolled in the Voluntary Remediation Program, which is administered by VDEQ, to address remaining petroleum-impacted soil that will be encountered during redevelopment at depths previously left undisturbed.”
Throughout much of this cleanup, the ultimate use of the land was not known. Now homes, playgrounds and offices are being constructed on the property, which means residents and workers will have much more exposure to contaminants if they still exist.
Throughout the other cleanups, the Alexandria authorities under Skrabak had monitored the cleanup. “As with all development or redevelopment parcels in the City, the individual development blocks within Potomac Yard require an updated site characterization report, a risk assessment, a remediation/soil management plan and a health and safety plan to be submitted and approved prior to plan approval. These plans direct the contractor regarding environmental issues during construction as overseen by City Inspectors and DEQ staff,” Skrabak’s office said in an email statement.
The fact that Pulte is currently selling homes in a portion of the south Potomac Yard, Skrabak said, means the area has been certified as safe.
Pulte Group which has sold homes on its south Potomac Yard site asks buyers to sign an acknowledgement that they know about the environmental contamination. Skrabak said Alexandria encourages developers to advise people about conditions and history of a site.
When the original EPA cleanup was underway, public hearings disclosed concern in nearby neighborhoods of Del Ray, Hume and St. Elmo. But according to Joe Bondi, head of a home owners’ group in Lynhaven, when he reviewed plans as part of a public advisory group, there was little concern mentioned over environmental dangers.
By Nicholas Horrock