There is no Alexandria gas manufacturing facility at the corner of N. Lee and Oronoco Street anymore. Just up the street, operations have long since stopped at the former GenOn Power Plant. But while many Alexandrians celebrated the departure of these facilities, as a parting gift, they left something behind for Alexandria: poisons like arsenic, lead and petroleum.
During a recent discussion on the construction process for Robinson Terminal North, William Skrabak, deputy director of Infrastructure and Environmental Quality for the department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said: “These were former industrial sites. There are residual levels of a variety of contaminants.”
Skrabak said that these problems aren’t unique to Old Town, and that the city has similar concerns regarding former rail yards and landfill scrap yards. According to Skrabak, these situations usually result in a remediation plan, especially when underground parking is involved.
“In many cases, they remove much of the contamination when the soil is removed,” said Skrabak. “In all three of the waterfront cases, they’re excavating. [These excavations] typically have elevated levels of metals, including lead and arsenic, particularly for Robinson Terminal North. In many cases, [there is] residual petroleum from spills or underground storage tanks.”
The current plan for Robinson Terminal North is to truck out the contaminated fill and bring in the new clean fill — to meet flood plain requirements — by barge. But the prospect of 9,363 truck trips through the heart of Old Town North carrying dirt laced with lead, arsenic, and petroleum doesn’t sit well with some of the local residents. To make matters worse, one of the trucks at Carr’s Indigo Hotel site in southern Old Town spilled a load of soil onto South Union street in late October.
“At the south end [of Old Town], we’re already having incidents where trucks have dropped loads, trucks have not been covered properly, and trucks have leaked,” said Ann Shack, a resident of Old Town North, “and the contamination is not nearly as severe there … When they take the contamination out, there’s no 100 percent screen that’s going to protect anything. But if they have to handle several tons to put it in the truck through city streets and on Route 1, they’re going to be exposing thousands of people along the route, and that’s if everything goes perfectly.”
According to Skrabak, if contaminated material were spilled on Old Town’s streets, the effects would depend on what the contaminants were. For most spilled materials, pets or humans with unusual tastes eating the spilled soil would be an item of concern. For others, like arsenic, there is a serious risk of a spill contaminating the air. Skrabak said the spill at the Carr site was due to the materials being improperly sealed in a truck, but noted that the containment in effect at the Carr site is not as strict as it would be with contaminated soil at Robinson Terminal North.
“We do not expect same types of errors when they are specifically handling that type of soil,” said Skrabak. “What spilled out of the truck [at the south site] was from a dewatering hole where they were installing electrical utilities. The material that spilled was too wet and they didn’t seal the truck well enough. Part of the detailed plans for north site include more precautions.”
For Robinson Terminal North, Skrabak said the city is preparing for the worst. The city will require air quality monitoring and for the site to be overseen by an industrial hygienist for workers’ and neighbors’ safety.
“[We] strengthened language to deal with potential concerns to Robinson Terminal North,” said Skrabak. “With Robinson Terminal North, [arsenic] is why we added conditions about air monitoring for excavation and will have on site health and safety inspectors, as well as city staff regularly visiting site. There are additional layers for safety there.”
But for many Old Town residents, the larger question is why trucking is even being utilized in the first place. Yvonne Weight Callahan, president of the Old Town Civic Association spoke at the Oct. 17 public hearing on Robinson Terminal North, and expressed similar concerns about the trucks carrying the contaminated soil through Old Town. Callahan was particularly disturbed that barging was being used to transport the clean soil in but not to take out the contaminated fill.
It comes down to cost. According to Skrabak, bringing clean fill in by barge is relatively inexpensive, but the disposal process for contaminated soil by barge is more costly. Skrabak said that there are more places which can receive contaminated fill by truck while barging requires a two- or three-day trip to a place that will take it. Ironically, Skrabak said that removing the materials by trucking is safer for residents than the multi-step process for removing it by barge.
“If you were going to do [Robinson Terminal] North by barge, first you have to dig it out of the hole, transport it from western portion of the site across Union Street, then load it onto the barge,” said Skrabak. “In that case, you would be handling the material multiple times. That increases the potential exposure. You’re picking up and dropping it multiple times. We would prefer to minimize the handling of the material. Get it in a container, and get it out of a city.”
But even if barging isn’t considered, Shack said there are still other options.
“We residents are very concerned,” said Shack. “The city interests have said they’re not barging anything out and said they can do it by truck. I would love to see them take it out by rail. The rail tracks are right there. It goes across city land.”
But the rail lines haven’t been used in two years, and a pedestrian and bike path now crosses over them. Shack suggested that the path could be closed. Skraback said the train option was considered, but was rejected for a variety of reasons.
“We asked developer to look at taking material out by train car,” said Skrabak, “but there were logistical reasons why it was difficult. You had to stage several cars there. Basically, Robinson Terminal North used to get deliveries with a very limited number of train cars. Two or three cars were brought to site, stored, then removed. If they were going to be bringing in fill and removing it by rail, it was our understanding that the tracks would have to be restored since they haven’t been used in quite some time and you would have had an issue of cars stored there and train operations during the day.”
Additionally, Skrabak said the train delivery might not work out as well for the neighborhood as they might hope, especially with the volume of train traffic being much higher than former operations at the site.
“If they’re going to be loading cars and moving them, there would have been a lot more rail operations than that neighborhood had ever seen,” said Skrabak. “The logistics did not work out and it was even more expensive than barging.”
Skrabak says citizens will have a chance to review the city’s safety requirements before work on Robinson Terminal North is approved, but no timeline has been put together yet.
“We’re talking about a fairly extensive process, more than 12 months away at least, so they have not submitted those specific plans,” said Skrabak. “We’re many months away from getting those specific plans reviewed by city… We too are concerned about the soils. The public health and safety is first concern. but we think this could be done in a safe manner.”