This is the site of possible ground contamination on Front Street near where a former manufactured gas plant once operated. Cleanup could cost as much as $10 million.
ALBANY, Ga. — There's no disagreement among city of Albany or Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission officials on the problem that lies ahead.
It's the solution to that problem that's the point of contention.
A manufactured gas plant, built on land at 900 Front St. in 1912 and used to produce energy for electricity and heat until operations ceased in 1948, has been officially declared a hazardous waste site by the state's Environmental Protection Division. So the site must be cleaned to EPD standards.
The cleanup is expected to carry a price tag between $3 million and $9 million. Albany and WG&L officials are trying to determine where that money will come from. Some city leaders say WG&L, whose officials have known about EPD concerns since the survey "A Preliminary Investigation of the Hydrogeology and Contamination in the Area of an Abandoned Manufactured Gas Plant in Albany, Georgia" was completed, should have been budgeting funds to pay for the cleanup.
WG&L officials say the plant is located on land deeded to the city in 1885, was actually operated by city employees and is an expense that, at worst, should come from both the city's and the utility's budgets.
The (multi)million-dollar question is how much should each entity pay?
"According to a letter we got from WG&L in February, it will cost from $5 million to $10 million to clean up that site," City Manager James Taylor said. "What we have to do is come together and find a way to pay this money. It's gotten the EPD's attention; it's got to be done.
"The city is now aware of the issue. We don't have the money in our budget to pay for it, and neither does WG&L. So we're working with them to determine where the money will come from."
PAYING FOR IT
The utility's general manager, Lemuel Edwards, said he's working under a premise that a 50-50 split is the most equitable means to address the payment issue.
"We're putting our heads together now to work this out," he said. "WG&L did not operate this plant until an employee that was paid jointly by this department and the city was put in place, so we certainly plan to honor our part in this. But it's a city problem as well as ours."
The investigative survey, completed by M.J. Chapman, B.M. Gallaher and D.A. Early of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1990 for the U.S. Department of the Interior, spells out concerns surrounding the 12-acre site. The report notes that byproducts and waste generated at the manufactured gas plant, including tar and oil residues, spent oxides and ash, were disposed of onsite.
With the introduction of natural gas pipelines, the manufactured gas plants — which utilized coal and oil to generate heat and electricity — were phased out as energy producers. The Albany plant ceased operation and was abandoned in 1948 but was not fully decommissioned until 1961. EPA-ordered testing at the site turned up large levels of carcinogenic materials and other priority pollutants.
An investigation initiated by the USGS in January of 1989, which included 33 borings at depths ranging from 1.5 to 30.5 feet, detected high concentrations of cyanide in sediment and groundwater samples collected in the vicinity of the plant's holding tanks. Also discovered were high concentrations of naphthalene, ethylbenzine, benzine and toluene. Several other contaminants were also detected but at lesser levels.
WG&L worked with USGS officials to commission test and monitoring wells at the site in 1990, 1991 and 1992, and Assistant General Manager for Operations Keith Goodin contracted with an Atlanta-based engineering firm with experience in such site cleanups to compile a compliance status report for EPA.
That work, which was finally accepted by the state Environmental Protection Agency after months of work and pages of revisions, cleared the way for actual clean-up at the site. Exploratory digging was supposed to have started by September of this year, but Goodin sought and received an extension so that funding for the cleanup could be secured.
MARCH DIGGING PLANNED
The EPA ruled late last month that digging at the site must start by March 1, 2013. Cost of that process is expected to run $750,000.
"Our plan is to dig a 50-foot by 50-foot hole 9 feet deep at the site of one storage tank, and a 75-foot by 50-foot hole 12 feet deep at another," Goodin said. "Since we're digging the dirt, we plan to go ahead and clear it from the site. It will be taken to the Dougherty County Landfill, which is approved to dispose of the contaminated dirt."
Test results from the dig will determine eventual cleanup cost as the city and WG&L start their Corrective Action Plan.
"We hope the contaminants have not made their way into the (nearby) Flint River or contaminated the groundwater on the site," Taylor said. "If it has, we could be testing and tracking for years and years to come."
WG&L Deputy Director of Engineering Lee Daniel said there's reason to be optimistic that contamination from the site has been contained.
"Based on testing from soil borings and the wells, engineers who've worked on the project have offered an opinion that the contamination has been contained on the site," Daniel said. "We're hoping that's the case."
Added Goodin: "We're cautiously optimistic."
Albany City Commissioner Bob Langstaff has openly questioned WG&L officials about the utility's investigation into the hazardous site and its reluctance to share information with the City Commission. He said the situation surrounding the manufactured gas site shows the city manager should have ultimate oversight of WG&L, which functions as a city department.
"WG&L was never designed to operate in a vacuum with minimal oversight," Langstaff wrote in an email to The Herald. "In the 1950s, WG&L didn't buy a truck without the blessing of the City Commission. By the late 1960s, the WG&L management team began to insulate WG&L from oversight by the commission. There were some legitimate reasons for doing that, but there were also some very, very illegitimate reasons.
"The whole city is now paying for those sins of the past. The pendulum of isolation has swung so far that even the WG&L Board is largely isolated from actions taken by WG&L management. That is not how WG&L was intended to operate, and it is not good government."
UTILITY OVERSIGHT PUSHED
Langstaff said WG&L management's decision to work out an insurance settlement without the city's or the utility board's input is reason enough to call for more city oversight of the utility's activities.
"The manufactured gas plant cleanup is just one more shining example of why the city manager needs to have ultimate oversight over WG&L's management team," Langstaff wrote. "The WG&L Board should continue to be involved in day-to-day affairs and rate-setting, but the city manager needs to be responsible for making sure that the WG&L Board and/or the City Commission are appropriately informed and involved in policy-level decisions."
Taylor said he believes WG&L officials underestimated the significance of the hazardous site and kept information in-house until it got to be "much bigger than they could handle." But he said the significance of the cleanup shows that better communication between the utility and the city government is needed.
"There ought to be a control in place so that we know (about possible problems) as quickly as any city department knows," the city manager said.
Goodin acknowledges that WG&L handled the cleanup issue in-house as long as it was feasible, but now it's a problem that will require funding from both entities.
"I think the idea (at WG&L) has always been that if there were significant costs involved with the cleanup, the MEAG (Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia) money could be used to pay for it," he said. "There was no real need, no one believed, to budget funding (for a cleanup).
"But the city is controlling two-thirds of that money — which is money paid by ratepayers — so we're now in a position where we must work together to pay for the cleanup."