Superfund sites are properties that are designated by the federal government as contaminated by hazardous substances. This designation then makes these sites eligible for cleanup funds. Depending on the history of the property the federal government may seek to have the land owner that was responsible for the contamination pay the cleanup costs, or they may opt to clean up the property themselves using a Superfund trust fund.
The Escambia Wood Treating Company Superfund Site has a long and involved history and is known for making the headlines on numerous occasions. It was at one time the location for the historical, residential relocation project of a predominately minority community, which screamed social injustice. It was also a major news headliner when two investors were able to purchase two parcels of the superfund property at a County auction, which came as a great surprise to county officials, especially the parcel that was offered for sale on eBay. And then of course, it continued to make headlines as details of the toxic groundwater plume and contaminated soil, which gives the property its prominent superfund status, were investigated and reported.
The headline that circulated recently in government and business circles asked “Is a Superfund site safe for a jail?” I didn’t struggle with the question. Yes, a Superfund site that had been cleaned to the required regulatory levels for future development was safe for a jail. Maybe the question should have been, not would it be safe for a jail, but how will community advocates with an emotional history for this site react? Were it not proposed as a new jail location, but perhaps a building that a community advocate could have their name on the side of, then I suspect it would have been better received. I can’t blame a city council member or community advocate for not wanting a monument sporting their name at the entrance to a new jail and taking credit for placing this underutilized and stigmatized property back in use. Emotion and vanity ruled the day, and this 30 or more acres of cleaned industrial land was deemed to sit vacant until the next best opportunity comes along.
There were never going to be community gardens, playgrounds, a cool mixed use development, or anything with even a hint of a residential component to it on this Superfund site. It’s industrial land and it was cleaned to industrial standards, after all, it was a former wood treating company. Any future redevelopment would have strict environmental and institutional controls. Meaning very limited exposure to the grounds and zero exposure to ground water. According to Eric Spalvins, Remedial Project Manager, EPA Superfund Division, “EPA has spent about $35 million on remediation and about $35 million on the relocation”, Spalvins added that ”as the Superfund site stands now, a person working there in a commercial environment has a one in one million chance that their risk of cancer will increase” And furthermore, “that using this property as a jail will result in less exposure than the typical scenario.” This Superfund site is shovel ready for new construction, and yet like so much of the other government owned property in Escambia County and Pensacola, it remains vacant.
The City of Pensacola had at one time worked with owners of a manufacturing and distribution plant to relocate to this site. This required the federal government conveying the land to the state, to then be conveyed to the local government. There was no playbook for government officials to process a Superfund site transfer, it had never been done before in the state of Florida, and as such, federal and state officials were too afraid to take charge, so the conveyance didn’t happen. The distribution company found a new location and Pensacola lost jobs. If this site had been redeveloped into a manufacturing and distribution center it would have meant people reporting to work every day. Walking from their cars into the building several times a day, employees, customers and clients. But place a prison on this site, where inmates have no freedom to wander outside and suddenly it’s not a good idea, in spite of its number 1 ranking and affordability, County officials voted against the use 4 -0.
The Pensacola News Journal reported that “the relocation was the 3rd largest permanent Superfund relocation in the nation’s history, and in total about 70 acres of land in the center of Pensacola have stood largely abandoned ever since.” That relocation will haunt the redevelopment of this site and ironically have it remain as a vacant memorial to the residential community that was once housed there. We in Pensacola are living in the past every time we refer to the relocation project. It’s a painful memory but it shouldn’t keep us from moving forward. It’s a shovel ready industrial parcel. Let’s not get in our own way, again, and may others learn from our story.
About Cynthia Cannon, AICP – Cynthia is based in Pensacola, Florida and joined SVN | SouthLand Commercial in 2015. She has spent more than 20 years as a certified land use planner, in both the public and private sectors. She is now leveraging her skill set to specialize in retail and government related real estate. If you would like to contact her, you can call her at 850-610-8340, or email her at [email protected] You can also follow Cynthia on Twitter at @CCannonCRE.
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