City manager Brian Muenger said the meeting is “to update people on our progress one year in.” Muenger, Gallet senior project geologist Ben Noble, and representatives of the EPA and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management will be on hand to field questions and encourage further community involvement.
The city has either achieved or exceeded federal expectations so far, Muenger said.
According to Noble, the first step of the process involves completion of a generic quality assurance project plan, a thick and dry document that is nevertheless important when dealing with federal agencies. Next is the site inventory ranking and access agreements.
The project covers what Muenger calls the Battle Street Corridor, from the square to E.H. Gentry and a couple of blocks in either direction. There are at least 100 sites containing “vacant, abandoned or underused” former industrial properties with “actual or perceived contamination issues,” Noble said. About 60 have been ranked so far, “but this is a living document, so we can always add more.”
“If you want to develop a piece of industrial property, the banks won’t lend you any money if you don’t test for contaminants first,” Muenger said.
Once the sites are identified, research is done not only regarding current use but regarding historic use as well, using public records and fire insurance maps.
“That tells us what to look for,” Noble said. “Most contaminants are specific to a given industry, so we know going in if the issue is going to be tank mitigation, dry cleaning fluid or whatever. And the plans for the mill sites have already been approved by EPA.”
The mill sites in question are the Wehadkee Yarn Mill and dye plant that were acquired by the city last year for $140,000. The third piece of Wehadkee property in Talladega, which is owned by Mt. Canaan Baptist Church, does not have any industrial buildings left on it, so it is not eligible for inclusion, according to Muenger.
Infrastructure audits for both buildings are complete. “With the value of all of the materials in those buildings, they could probably be demolished at little or no cost to the city,” Muenger said.
The city has also successfully joined the state’s voluntary cleanup program, and used that application to double as the site specific QAPP for the federal government.
As for the non-mill sites, Noble said “five property owners have signed up, and two of the assessments on them are complete. They want nine phase ones and three phase twos in the first three years, and Talladega already has seven phase ones and two phase twos. They want you to spend 35 percent of the grant in the first year, and the city actually exceeded that.”
In addition to the mills, early investigation will involve the Hann Car Wash building (for underground fuel tanks), the old Plaza Cleaners building and three vacant buildings. The city has applied for an additional $150,000 in federal funding for a pilot planning grant.
“People hear about environmental testing and the EPA, and lots of times they get scared,” Muenger said. “This program is not to punish property owners. If they ever want to develop the property or transfer it to anyone else, they’re going to have to do this on their own.” The city has also been working with Chamber of Commerce director Mack Ferguson to persuade more businesses, especially on the square, to participate in the program.
The current grant only covers assessment costs, not the actual cleanup. But Muenger and Noble agree the city’s early successes with this grant improve the odds for future funding. In addition to several categories of grant likely to be available, the Brownfield program also provides access to rotating loan funds and other benefits.
“When you’re dealing with most regulators, it’s not always the most friendly environment,” Noble said. “But I’ve never seen a program where the regulators work so well together. They show a kind of flexibility you don’t often see, and that’s refreshing. And Congress is going to continue funding programs like this, because it’s pro-business on one side and environmentally sound on the other. These projects can be a huge marketing tool for developers, because if you get a clean bill of health, you get a third party liability exemption, and it removes the environmental question mark. If you’re trying to develop property, that question mark can be like a chain around your neck.”
Contact Chris Norwood at firstname.lastname@example.org