published Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Residents look for way to push Velsicol cleanup

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Residents around the old Velsicol site may not get what they want —  a deep cleanup of the former chemical property — because the area is zoned for industry.

Milton Jackson, an Alton Park man who has been pushing the state to take a more forceful role in cleaning up the idled Velsicol Chemical plant site in his neighborhood, says he also wants the city to step up.

Last week, state officials told Jackson and members of the group Stop Toxic Pollution that they won't push Velsicol to clean the 36-acre site beyond what is necessary for its industrial zoning.

"The state can't tell Velsicol what [use] to do with its property," said Clayton Bullington, a permit writer with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. "Now, if the city were to rezone the site [to recreation or residential], that would trigger a re-evaluation."

Jackson said he'll be looking into the zoning question this week.

"And if that doesn't work, and the state goes with the plan Velsicol has now, we're going to try to get as many people as possible together for a protest," he said.

Velsicol and the state have negotiated for months to modify the closed facility's hazardous waste management permit.

Local residents think Velsicol's proposed final remedy -- covering the fenced site with 12 to 18 inches of soil and grass as well as monitoring groundwater -- doesn't call for enough protective cleanup.

Gary Hermann, Velsicol's senior environmental projects manager, said the cover-and-monitor plan "is a remediation plan that is used all over the country" and it is "protective of the human health and the environment."

Hermann would not comment on the citizens' plan to ask the city to weigh in with a zoning change.

The zoning card?

Alton Park residents have said they don't want another industry in their community, where the city recently invested a $35 million HOPE VI federal housing grant to build the Villages at Alton Park.

But Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield was lukewarm to the rezoning idea.

"I defer, frankly, to [TDEC] and their judgment in this area," he said. "I don't know what use the community's talking for the property. I've heard recreational, but I don't know what that means."

The mayor said citizens certainly can apply for a rezoning, but it's not a simple process.

"When you do that [rezone], it is, in some sense, a taking of the value of the property," Littlefield said.

The property would be more valuable cleaned up to a higher standard, Littlefield acknowledged.

"But the value of the property for recreational use would certainly be less than its value for industrial use," he said.

Hermann said Friday that Velsicol hopes to sell the property to another industry.

Chattanooga owns the Tennessee Products site next to Velsicol, where Chattanooga Coke and Chemical Co. used to burn coal to make coke, a hot-burning fuel for foundries. Hermann said it makes sense that the two properties could be marketed or developed together.

Littlefield said he understands the citizens' concern but noted they already live among industries.

"Anytime you say 'industry,' particularly in areas that have suffered through the last century and the kinds of industrial pollution Alton Park has seen, certainly people become fearful," the mayor said.

"But I can see something of a light [industrial] nature down there. Because there are a lot of other industries there that are not going to go away no matter what we do at the Velsicol site."

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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