Thursday, February 7, 2008

Kresge fire clean up heating up

By William Kaempffer and Maria Garriga
Register Staff
— The owner of the former Kresge department store site downtown is alleging a city-hired demolition company used potentially contaminated soil to fill his property after the buildings were razed, and is demanding the city remove all tainted fill “as soon as possible.”
Owner Paul Denz put the city on notice Tuesday that an environmental consultant he hired last month concluded that the fill should be considered “polluted soil.”
“Therefore, this letter shall serve as notice to the city of New Haven that all fill materials dumped on the former (Kresge) site should be removed at the city’s expense as soon as possible so that no further contamination can take place,” says the letter, which was sent to Corporation Counsel John Ward Wednesday.
City spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga, however, said the fill was made of crushed brick and stone and was tested off site twice in December by an environmental contractor and it came back as clean before it was brought in.
She said the city is “currently looking into” Mid-Block’s environmental report but added “to the best of our knowledge the fill at the site was not contaminated at the time that it was brought in.”
The environmental question is the latest salvo in the war of words between Denz and the city over the valuable parcel, a battle that likely will play out in court as both sides argue whether the city overstepped its authority when it took control of the property a day after a massive Dec. 12 fire and over who is responsible to foot the demolition bill, which is expected to reach $2 million.
Mid-Block Development and a second property owner whose building was razed already have filed lawsuits challenging the city’s authority.
At an aldermanic public hearing on the fire Wednesday night, members questioned every aspect of the fire except the pending lawsuits. They saved those questions for an executive session afterward with attorneys. At the public portion of the hearing, the aldermen peppered city officials with questions about how the Fire Department handled the situation, future health claims that could be filed by firefighters, site security and the reasons for demolition of the Kresge and adjacent Spector buildings.
As the hearing progressed, it became starkly evident that the fire’s financial impact on the city has yet to be seen.
City Controller Mark Pietrosimone had sobering information for the aldermen. “Claims arising from this fire you will not see immediately, you will see them in 20 to 30 years,” he said. The city self-insures on workers’ compensation, but buys a stopgap insurance policy to cover individual claims that exceed $1 million, he added. In preparation for possible claims, the city has asked firefighters from the Kresge blaze to undergo baseline physical exams, Pietrosimone said.
While the Kresge fire directly affected five businesses, it also strained nearby businesses for weeks because of street closures and demolitions.
“Overall we are moving back toward normalcy, but it’s a different kind of normal until that area is redeveloped,” said Michael Pinto, a city economic development officer.
The fire investigation has not reached any conclusions about the cause, said Michael Grant, fire chief.
Alderman Alex Rhodeen, D-13, chairman of the public safety committee, said he felt the hearing showed there had been adequate resources and response. “Then again, there’s always a question of disparity in perception,” he said. As for the impending lawsuits on demolition, he said, “that will be handled by the courts.”
“I’m concerned for the future of the property now that it’s apparent that polluted soil may have been used, and I believe it will have to be removed,” said Denz, who has been vocally critical of the city for, in his opinion, rushing through a complicated demolition job that he opposed, even after the immediate public safety threat was abated.
The three-alarm fire extensively damaged the century-old building that occupied the center of the block bordered by Church, Chapel, Orange and Center streets.
According to Denz’s report, one of four fill samples collected by his consultant showed the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons that exceeded limits for residential development and could result in restricted use for the site. Levels of mercury, arsenic, lead and other typical contaminants were all at safe ranges, even for residential development.
One of four samples collected, however, the consultant reported, showed levels of “Extractable Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons” that exceed limits for residential development and could result in restricted use for the site.
There was another caveat: In a Feb. 4 letter to Denz, the consultant notes the level of hydrocarbons, in and of itself, does not necessarily mean the fill is polluted and, in fact, fill classified as “clean” often has even higher levels and is permitted if caused by non-soluble asphalt millings or other permitted materials that are mixed into the fill.
When the company examined the soil, however, no asphalt bits were detected and the ultimate conclusion was absent proof that the elevated levels were due to recycled asphalt and not a more soluble petroleum product, therefore the soil should be considered polluted and its placement at the site could have violated Department of Environmental Protection regulations, the company said.Denz estimated the removal of roughly 16,000 tons of fill would cost $350,000 to $500,000 for the quarter-acre site.

1 comment:

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