Let science be our guide

Hyde Park in London is famous for its soap box speeches.

Hyde Park in Augusta was the focus of its own soap box speeches this week, as 10 of the area's residents and their supporters angrily claimed at a news conference that the city is about to force them out of their homes to avoid a hazard that isn't there.

Well, that's not quite true. Neither Mayor Deke Copenhaver nor city Administrator Fred Russell is convinced a mass relocation of the 500-some residents is called for.

Even after a $10 million cleanup at the site of the old Goldberg junkyard, there are from three to five "hot spots" of contamination, various sources say - though the last engineer to study the area's soil and groundwater, Tom Clark, has said "I think the whole area is affected."

Likewise, Frank Rumph - who led a governor's task force on the matter in 1994 - said recently that, "My opinion, after 13 years, thousands of hours and millions of dollars on tests, is that this community should have been relocated."

The residents who held a press conference Tuesday with citizen activist Woody Merry and environmental lawyer Robert Mullins disagree vehemently - saying they think it's perfectly safe to stay in houses and neighborhoods many of them have lived in for decades.

They don't think the danger is toxic chemicals such as lead and arsenic; they think it's city officials who, while well-intentioned, might uproot them unnecessarily, and not compensate them well enough to furnish them with a mortgage-free house elsewhere.

And they also question whether there is some land speculation and potential profiteering going on: They point to parcels being strangely bought up in the questioned area, possibly in anticipation of the city paying a premium for the land as part of a relocation project.

At the same time, other Hyde Park residents have worried for years, and for good reason: Studies have shown contamination in the area from now-defunct Southern Wood Piedmont and Goldberg junkyard operations.

Yet, there's no consensus on the need for a relocation.

"Millions of dollars have been spent to study the situation, and none of the studies have recommended a clear course of action," says Mayor Deke Copenhaver.

Besides possible contaminants, the city must also avoid any perception that Hyde Park residents aren't being relocated because they're not rich enough or white enough to warrant the trouble and expense. That's a very real concern.

So is the soap box, and well-meaning folks on both sides of the issue risk demagoguing it.

One suggestion: Cool the tempers and cut out the race-baiting, and let science be our guide.

Russell says the ball is in the court of state and federal environmental officials, who are digesting and interpreting the latest study.

"Tell me if we've got a problem or not," the city administrator says of the experts. "Until then, I'm not too sure."

We know this much: No one in this community, not anyone of any socio-economic or racial background, should have to live amidst contamination.

But neither should they be forced to leave unless the science is clear.

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