Saturday, November 24, 2012

TOP STORY >> Vertac a fading memory

Leader staff writer

Construction of the new $6 million, 37,000-square-foot police headquarters building on Marshall Road in Jacksonville nears completion just as the decades-old Vertac case on that property could end after a Dec. 19 hearing.

The new police department building will be completed in four weeks and officers could move in after the first of the year, according to Mayor Gary Fletcher. The building will also house a 911 center, a FEMA safe room and three training classrooms.

Already at the site are the police firing range, fire training grounds, street department and recycling center.

But the land wasn’t so useful in 1979, when the Environmental Protection Agency found that it was contaminated with dioxin, a toxic waste. Herbicide manufacturers Hercules Inc., a Delaware company, and Vertac Chemical Corp. were blamed. Vertac bought the land in 1976 from Hercules, which had owned it since 1963.

The property was cleaned up in 1998 with $150 million from the federal Superfund program, which oversaw the destruction of thousands of contaminated barrels from the old chemical plant.

Hercules spent $120 million and Vertac contributed $3 million to the cleanup of 93 acres. They finished paying their portions of the bill in 2007.

Hercules, attorney Lee Thalheimer of Little Rock and the state Department of Environmental Quality have asked that U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. close the case by approving a final settlement agreement.

Thalheimer has been the court-appointed receiver since 1986. He is responsible for securing and realizing the assets of Vertac and managing the affairs of the company.

Anyone who is opposed to the settlement must file a written objection with the district clerk’s office at 600 W. Capital Ave., Room A149, in Little Rock by 5 p.m. Dec. 7.

Fletcher said, “For all of us who understood what took place here to clean the site, it’s already been put to bed. For most people, it’s a foggy memory. As far as we’re concerned, it’s a dead issue. This is just the legal, judiciary process. The site is clean, has been clean, for years. It’s a beautiful site. The wildlife, the vegetation is as healthy here as it is anywhere else.”

He said federal agencies could take much of the credit for that.

“They were here watching, making sure that process was taken care of. We got extra attention.”

The mayor added that people have more to fear from pesticides that are sprayed on residential lawns than they do from the brownfield, the designation Vertac acquired after the cleanup.

The mayor was more excited about what lay ahead than the site’s past. Fletcher is looking forward to federal and state agencies using Jacksonville’s state-of-the-art training complex, which will be “centrally” located in the region “a couple of blocks from (Hwy. 67/167).”

“It’s the envy of everybody. It’s good for the morale of our people. It’s also a great recruitment tool,” he said about the new public safety building. Fletcher added that police officers who have toured the work-in-progress “get big grins on their faces.”

The city is spending $3 million it saved and $2.5 million it borrowed to build the fire and police training grounds.

FEMA gave the city $500,000 to cover the cost of building a safe room.

The hall that runs from one side of the building to the other is a little longer than a football field, the mayor said.

Fletcher said, “This (building) will probably take care of our needs for the next 60, 75 years.”

The color scheme for the facility is red, blue and beige. Areas with red accent walls will be used by firefighters while areas with blue accent walls are for police.

One of the many highlights of the building, Fletcher said, is the evidence room. He said the evidence room the police department uses now is much like a home’s storage room.

The new room will be temperature-controlled, which will keep the evidence in good condition. Deteriorated evidence can’t be submitted to court when cases come to trial years after the crime is committed, the mayor said.

The facility will offer a record-keeping office for fire training, movable sectional flooring in the 911 center to make expansion or organizational changes easier, a glass entrance, a code enforcement office at the front of the building, a garage-like room for police officers to bring in cars that could contain evidence, a gym equipped with exercise machines, locker rooms with showers and a kitchen.

A few small rooms have canine doors that lead to a fenced area outside. Police officers with canine partners will be able to leave their dogs there when they come in to make reports, the mayor said.

Fletcher said that right now, the dogs are left in running cars. Having a space where they can go inside and out as they please will be better than wasting money on gas and vehicle maintenance, the mayor said.

The 3,000-square-foot safe room will double as an auditorium where events like the annual police awards dinner can be held, Fletcher said. He added that the safe room would be able to withstand an F5 tornado.

The mayor said what is going on in the Vertac case would not impact what is happening at the site now.

The proposed settlement agreement the judge will consider at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 19 requires the following:

Until it is declared that no environmental hazard remains, East Bay Realty Services, a subsidiary of Hercules, has to treat ground water and monitor the property.

Hercules must respond immediately and appropriately to any incident that involves the release of hazardous substance from the site or threatens public health, welfare or the environment. The company will also submit a follow-up written report to the EPA.

The property cannot be used for residential purposes or any projects that involve exposure to soils. So, a nursing home, day care center, playground or church cannot be built there without the written approval of environmental authorities. The site’s groundwater and surface water can’t be used. Drilling, mining, excavation and backfilling with untested or hazardous soil is also prohibited.

State and federal environmental authorities will continue to have access to monitoring wells, pressure-measuring devices and streams. Fencing has to restrict some parts of the property.