Originally created 04/29/01

Gas plant cleanup effort will displace inner-city residents



Frances Milton spends her afternoons in a rocking chair on the front porch of the home she has enjoyed for 38 years.

The house holds fond memories of her family - five children, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Even the Bermuda grass along the curb - grown from sprigs her husband brought home from the Augusta National Golf Club - is special.

"He worked there 41 years," she said.

Ms. Milton is among the few remaining residents of the area near Atlanta Gas Light Co.'s former manufactured gas plant - an inner-city area earmarked for a monumental environmental cleanup.

"They tell me there's contamination, and that I'll have to move so they can clean it up," she said.

The gas plant, bounded by Eighth Street, Walton Way and the Augusta Canal, was in business from 1852 to 1955. Coal tar from the gas-making process seeped into soil and water over the decades.

Coal tar contains cancer-causing materials such as benzene and napthalene, said John Fonk, an engineer in the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's Hazardous Waste Management Branch.

"The corrective action plan on file now is the basic remediation plan," he said. "The whole purpose is to remove as much material as possible from what we call the source area."

Although the source area is a small piece of real estate where the gas plant operated, the effects of the contamination have spread much farther.

The contamination requires a $50 million cleanup that includes digging out and paving a mile of the Augusta Canal and pumping contaminated groundwater from bedrock as deep as 175 feet.

The "chemical soup of constituents" left behind by the coal tar will require several types of cleanup methods, Mr. Fonk said.

Shawn Davis, a contractor for Atlanta Gas Light, said the three-year project could become one of the most expensive such cleanups in the country.

The company already has spent $10 million to remove 23,000 tons of soil and 95,000 gallons of coal tar and has paid $7.3 million to settle a property damage lawsuit in which Atlanta Gas Light acquired a church and 30 properties.

Soon the largest part of the cleanup will begin.

"In terms of the soil impacts, there are no surprises," Mr. Davis said. "Everyone knew where the impacts were, and there will be about 20 off-site properties where excavations will go on."

In addition to excavations to clean up surface soil, the plan includes remediation for a broad, egg-shaped plume of ground water contamination moving toward the Savannah River.

So far, the plume - within bedrock 75 to 175 feet deep - has migrated to property beneath the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center, Bell Auditorium and other areas.

Mr. Davis said the cleanup plan for deep ground water problems involves pumping out contaminated water to slow - and eventually halt and reverse - the spread of the contamination.

The deep ground water problems are no threat to public health because residents in the area have access to the city water system and don't rely on wells, he said.

Atlanta Gas and Mr. Davis' company - Williams Environmental - have worked for two years on a cleanup plan that was approved by the Environmental Protection Division last month.

In addition to the cleanup, the plan calls for working with the city and the Augusta Canal Authority to redevelop, widen and refill a mile of the Augusta Canal - from Twiggs Street to Eleventh Street.

"The plan calls for cleaning out a third level of canal and re-watering it," Canal Authority Director Dayton Sherrouse said. "When they dig it out, rather than putting it back the way it is, they'll put it back the way we wanted it in our Canal Master Plan."

The plan calls for paving the canal channel to make it deeper, more aesthetically pleasing and more efficient as a means of dispelling stormwater from downtown areas, Mr. Sherrouse said.

The redeveloped canal banks will be used in downtown redevelopment projects that will include housing and bicycle trails.

Because some of the improvements to be done during the cleanup are not environmental remediation, the city and Canal Authority might reimburse Atlanta Gas for some of those costs, he said.

City officials are monitoring the cleanup plan and recently submitted comments to EPD in efforts to be good stewards of public property such as the Augusta Canal, Mayor Bob Young said.

"We've made some comments, and most of them relate to questions the (cleanup) plan raised that are not answered," he said. "But we're all in agreement of what we want done."

Ms. Milton, meanwhile, expects to be moved from her home later this year in anticipation of the formal cleanup set to begin in January.

Atlanta Gas Light plans to move her entire house - porch and all - to a new location during the cleanup and - if she desires - return the home to her lot on Eighth Street once the work is completed, Mr. Davis said.

If that plan does not work, there are provisions to build her a new home, if that's what she wants, he said.

The $50 million cleanup is being financed by Atlanta Gas Light ratepayers through a fund fueled by a nickel-per-bill surcharge imposed intermittently since 1992.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.