Gas plant cleanup to start Feb. 11

ALBANY -- The city's Water, Gas & Light Commission board OK'd plans for Phase I of a hazardous waste cleanup at 900 Front St. Thursday morning, giving the go-ahead for exploratory excavation that is expected to cost close to a half-million dollars.

Digging at the site of a former manufactured gas plant is set to begin Feb. 11.

"We've developed a cleanup plan for the first phase of this project," Albany City Manager James Taylor, who was formally approved at the meeting to serve as interim general manager of the utility, said. "Phase I is going to answer the question of the cost of the cleanup. If it's a little number, we're OK. If it's a big number, we've got problems."

Assistant WG&L General Manager for Operations Keith Goodin said he's holding out hope that cost for the cleanup, projected to come in at between $5 million and $10 million, will be at the lower end of the scale.

"I hesitate to say this, but I personally believe we can clean that site for $5 million," Goodin said after the meeting. "Most of these cleanups in Georgia are coming in at around $9 million, much more than in other states. But Georgia's EPD (Environmental Protection Division) is more stringent than other states.

"We're also a smaller plant than many of the 2,000 or so that were used to create energy all over the U.S. The exploratory phase -- the digging -- is going to tell us the story."

Mayor Dorothy Hubbard, who serves as chair of the WG&L board, told board members they had little choice but to approve the cleanup plan.

"We don't really have a choice; we have to do this," she said.

Goodin told the board a tar-like sludge that was a byproduct of the plant's use of coal and superheated oil to create a gas used in energy production had to be removed from the area around the former gas plant.

"My concern is the water," Goodin told the board. "The 32 test wells we've dug show the hazardous material has been contained to the site, but if the dig shows that contamination has gotten to the water level, that's going to open Pandora's Box."

Garrett Construction Inc. of Dallas, Ga., turned in the low bid to complete Phase I of the cleanup. The company's $291,000 bid, plus removal of excavated dirt to the Dougherty County Landfill and testing of the dirt, is expected to cost close to $500,000. More than $200,000 of that cost is expected to be paid by insurance.

Also at Thursday's meeting, WG&L Fiscal Affairs Director John Vansant offered a mix of good news and bad news. The bad news: a mild August and December have cut into the utility's revenues so that WG&L's income for the fiscal year is running $1.374 million below projections.

However, because the need to purchase electricity from the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia has decreased, projected credit settlement for the year will come in at $3.6 million, $2.4 million more than the utility had projected.

Vansant also suggested increasing deposits paid by WG&L customers to help offset the 1 percent in uncollected debt that impacts the utility's bottom line.

After the board formally accepted Taylor as interim GM while a search is conducted to find a replacement for outgoing General Manager Lemuel Edwards, Hubbard said, "I expect staff to work with Mr. Taylor to make this transition as smooth as possible; I expect everyone's full cooperation to get us where we need to be."