You couldn’t miss this front-page story in the Des Moines Register on Monday:
City officials and developer DRA Properties are transforming a 1,031-acre World War II munitions plant site into a live-work-play development called Prairie Trail. They expect 10,000 people to move there by 2020.
To realize their new urbanist dream, however, the developer and others are working to eliminate concerns about the land, some of which has been designated as a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It’s a designation the EPA gives to uncontrolled hazardous waste sites identified as risks to human health.
There are two primary environmental concerns within the development, said Iowa DNR and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials.
The most critical is the 38-acre parcel to be converted into a city park. The land was used as a landfill and industrial lagoon decades ago by the Army, John Deere and the city. The area is where production waste of mainly metal particles and oils was disposed. Spots within the site, including toxic sludge left in the old industrial lagoons, contain unsafe levels of metals such as lead, chromium, copper, arsenic, manganese and antimony, according to the EPA.
EPA officials said the metals will have to be put out of human contact. Under a proposed plan, that would be done by a combination of removing soil and sealing the ground with a thick plastic barrier and clay cap.
Today, one in 10,000 people has a chance of getting cancer from a lifetime’s worth of exposure at the site, EPA toxicologist Jeremy Johnson said. After the cleanup, he said, those odds will be one in 1 million. “Those cancer risks won’t be there,” he said.
The landfill and lagoon area is a Superfund site. It is not on the Superfund national priority list, which identifies the country’s worst hazards.
However, it is not known whether the site would qualify for the national priority list, said Gene Gunn, a branch chief in the EPA Superfund program. It is not being considered for the list, which is largely a designation for projects to receive federal money, because the parties responsible for the contamination have voluntarily agreed to pay for the cleanup.
“I wouldn’t be very concerned with it,” Gunn said of the site as it would be after the cleanup. “The action that’s going to take place there will leave it in a protective state.”
Under a draft proposal, a covenant on the land would prevent houses from being built on the lagoon and landfill site, and the groundwater near there would be monitored for 30 years.
The Prairie Trail development is a great concept: a mix of residential, retail and public space in the center of town, easily navigated by foot or bicycle for those who choose not to drive.
However, community activists were raising concerns two years ago about the potential for schools, parks and houses to be placed on contaminated ground. I wish the Register had given the story prominent coverage at that time.
I hope they do a good job cleaning up this site, but frankly, I would hesitate to buy a home anywhere near that lagoon or landfill.