Hyde Park residents might be relocated

Plan calls for retention pond

Residents of Augusta's beleaguered Hyde Park community could be relocated within two years under the newest plan to transform the neighborhood into a stormwater retention pond.

"If it works out, it's a huge major deal," said Charles Utley, a veteran neighborhood activist and owner of four Hyde Park properties. "We've been talking about this for 20 to 30 years."

Four blocks wide and flanked by rail lines to the east and west, the patchwork of homes, vacant lots and abandoned buildings has been the focus of lawsuits and environmental studies linked to claims the area was contaminated with lead and other toxic materials. Flooding in low-lying areas has been a perennial problem.

Although millions of dollars in federal and state health assessments failed to document threats severe enough to warrant mass evacuation, a $10 million cleanup was conducted at the nearby Goldberg junkyard -- the suspected source of lead and other materials found in soil samples from the neighborhood.

Augusta Commissioner Corey Johnson, whose District 2 encompasses the area, said engineers have drawn up a plan to raze the entire neighborhood to make way for a stormwater control project that would -- in addition to relocating the residents -- offer better flood protection for other neighborhoods nearby.

"It would be part of the Wilkinson Gardens stormwater project and would benefit the whole Oliver Road corridor, everything within a few-mile radius of Hyde Park," he said.

The plan -- costing about $17 million, including the relocation effort and the stormwater improvements -- will go before the Augusta Commission's Engineering Services Committee next week, Johnson said.

If approved, the plan would advance to the full commission.

Although city approval is needed to pursue the project, that approval would not guarantee funding, he said. Rather, it would set in motion efforts to secure a combination of loans and grants from local and federal sources, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"What we're looking for is a notice to proceed," he said. "The engineers who have worked on this are pretty positive it would work. We do qualify, and we do meet the criteria. We just have to move rapidly on it."

Utley said the project would require acquisition and clearing of 186 to as many as 212 separate parcels, including 112 occupied dwellings.

"The retention pond would not actually use the whole neighborhood, but the whole neighborhood would have to be relocated," he said.

Elements of the plan, he said, would include assistance to residents -- both renters and owners who occupy the houses -- in accordance with federal rules governing relocations.

"The houses out there are mostly owner-occupied," he said. "I think that would be 70 to 80 of the houses."

If the plan is successful, it would be a long-awaited outcome for a neighborhood that has been the focus of turmoil for almost a quarter of a century.

"I hope it's the final chapter in the story of Hyde Park," Utley said. "It's been going on a long, long time."

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Hyde Park: a timeline

- 1960s: Developers gradually carve more than 300 rectangular lots for development in a flat, swampy area drained by bisecting ditches and flanked to the east and west by parallel rail lines. Families who build homes there are mostly blacks who work at nearby factories.

- 1986: A mile away, company officials close down the aging Southern Wood Piedmont wood treatment plant, where chemicals leaking into the soil for decades have poisoned groundwater and nearby soil. The subsequent cleanup will take decades and cost $46 million.

- 1991: Hyde Park residents launch the first of several lawsuits contending Southern Wood Piedmont polluted their neighborhood. Evidence, however, indicates groundwater flows in an opposite direction and the company denies all allegations. The lawsuits eventually will be dismissed in Southern Wood's favor.

- 1993: A detailed EPA study finds elevated lead levels in ditches flowing from Goldberg Brothers into residential areas in nearby Hyde Park but finds no evidence of wood-treating chemicals from Southern Wood Piedmont Co. in the neighborhood. Recommendations included placement of warning signs near drainage ditches.

- 1994: Phillip Goldberg, the president of the adjacent junkyard, contends any problems in Hyde Park are linked to Southern Wood Piedmont, not his junkyard. The junkyard also builds an earthen berm designed to keep stormwater from flowing into nearby Hyde Park.

- 1994: Gov. Zell Miller appoints a task force to oversee millions of dollars in health and environmental studies of the area.

- 1995: The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concludes that lead and other chemicals are not a health hazard to Hyde Park residents unless they ate the dirt daily for many years.

- 1998: After re-examining health studies at the request of politicians and residents, the agency reiterated its 1995 conclusions, saying again that the defunct wood-treating plant "is not a health hazard to surrounding neighborhoods."

- 1998: The EPA concludes there is enough lead in soil in one yard -- Hattie Elam's home on Walnut Street -- to warrant a $100,000 cleanup. The source of the lead is presumed to be the Goldberg junkyard, which declared bankruptcy after being ordered to clean up the area.

- 1999: A $200,000 Brownfields grant is earmarked for conducting environmental assessments.

- 2000: After consultants find huge volumes of surface pollution at the Goldberg site, city of Augusta officials ask Georgia's Environmental Protection Division for cleanup assistance.

- 2001: Georgia agrees to finance cleanup activities through the state Superfund account used to remediate toxic sites for which no responsible party can be charged.

- 2004: After a $10 million cleanup, the 10.8-acre Goldberg site is deemed safe for redevelopment.

- 2006: Augusta's Brownfields Commission re-introduces its desire to develop a complete relocation plan for all Hyde Park residents.

- 2007: Some residents tell Georgia's Environmental Protection Division the area is so damaged by toxic chemicals that a mass evacuation is warranted, but a rival group that included activist Woody Merry contends the blight is the result of neglect, not contamination.

- 2009: Augusta commissioners launch an effort to transform the neighborhood into a massive stormwater detention facility, which will require relocation of all residents and demolition of all homes.

What's next

A plan to transform the area into a storm-water retention pond will go before the Augusta Commission's engineering services committee next week.