What is this Superfund Site in Navassa?
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is helping transform an unusable, contaminated piece of land into a community asset for Navassa.
Ideally situated on the Brunswick River in the Town of Navassa, next to the S. Navassa Road bridge with a line-drive view of downtown Wilmington, lies 245 acres of land that prime for development. The problem is, a large portion of the land can’t be used. Yet. Many government agencies, environmental scientists and local citizens are working to change that.
Decades ago, a creosote plant operated on the edges of the marsh in that spot. From 1936 to 1974, it was here that wood, such as railroad ties and telephone poles, would be treated with creosote, a dark oil derived from coal tar. It was unknown at the time that creosote is a dangerous substance, toxic to humans and animals. It causes intense skin irritation, and prolonged exposure leads to respiratory illness and can cause cancer. Although the industrial plant was destroyed and all equipment removed in the 1980s, the damage had been done. This valuable property in Navassa cannot be used in the shape it is in right now.
Throughout the decades after the plant was removed, the land sat unused as it was transferred from company to company through mergers, transfers and buyouts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came to be an advocate for the proper cleanup of the acreage in 2003. That started with the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s building of a bridge. As they drove pilings, they discovered the soil contained with alarming levels of creosote and delivered their findings to the EPA. The EPA immediately referred it for further action and started to work with state agencies, such as the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ).
Unfortunately, the site was tied up in intense legal proceedings as owners Kerr-McGee transferred the liability to a newly created company called Tronox, which then declared bankruptcy. While federal courts demanded that Tronox set aside millions of dollars for environmental cleanup for its hazardous properties, there were hundreds of sites that fit the bill. It turns out that Navassa was one of the more complex, and $92 million was earmarked for its remediation.
Once finally settled, research, remediation and work could move forward. In 2010 the EPA designated the Navassa land a superfund site, making it a national priority. A superfund site is land marked by the government for cleanup as it poses a hazardous risk to human health and/or the environment.
“The thing to realize,” explains David Mattison, an environmental engineer with NCDEQ who has been working on this project for some time, “is that [the plant] was fine for practice at that time. New laws weren’t created until 1980. But the point of superfund status means that we clean up an abandoned waste site and put it to beneficial community use.”
There are stages to making this happen: remedial investigation, feasibility studies and then the actual clean up. For years, engineers such as Mattison have been monitoring the property and trying to get a handle on the exact scope of damage. They found that the creosote soaked nearly 100 feet into the ground in some areas, with most damage on the southwest side of the site, where the creosote ponds were.
“But it is important to understand that there is absolutely no hazard for anyone living or working near the site today. The damage is far underneath” the ground surface,” Mattison says. Since creosote is such a thick, sludgy substance, it turns out it doesn’t leach or permeate much.
Today the site is formally owned by the Greenfield Environmental Multistate Trust. This organization was created during the Tronox bankruptcy settlement to oversee some of the funds and lands earmarked for cleanup. Richard Elliott, project manager of the Navassa Superfund Site for the Multistate Trust, has been working hard to get this valuable land remediated and back to productive use for the community.
“Part of the superfund process is to figure out potential future use of the land,” Elliott says. “It is about returning it to beneficial use.”
To this end, the Multistate Trust has been holding public forums and community hearings to solicit feedback from people who live in Navassa and the surrounding areas. From hours of meetings, surveys and visioning workshops with more than 70 residents in attendance, a few plans have been drafted, trying to put to paper what the site could be eventually. The current redevelopment concepts include a park, a kayak launch, light industrial use, residences, a riverwalk and, what seems to be most important to the town, a cultural heritage center, possibly including a museum.
“We really wanted to engage the public, to see what they want,” Elliott says. “We have been working hard to bring this land back to where it can be a productive part of the community. The town was negatively impacted by the operation of this facility. But we are here to turn a negative into a positive.”
While the Navassa Superfund site is still early in the redevelopment planning process, it helps the Multistate Trust to know the possible uses of the property as envisioned by the community. The goal is to initiate cleanup by January 2019. Sometime later this year, the Multistate Trust will begin to explore sale of the land to owners that may be able to bring the neighborhood’s vision to fruition, yet no concrete deadlines have been determined for any transfer of land. And while the southwest part of the site will take longer to be reclaimed for us as its contamination is more intense, it is possible the northern part could be available for reuse in just a few short years.
“Because of its proximity to infrastructure, a railroad and I-140, there is a lot of value in this property,” Elliott says. “This is going to be gem in the Navassa crown, and a positive influence for the area.”
“This land isn’t helping anyone right now,” Mattison adds. “Our goal is to take a contaminated piece of land, fix it and put it to beneficial use to the community.”
According to all agencies and companies involved, the people of Navassa have been nothing but friendly and helpful. It seems that everyone acknowledges that what happened can’t be completely undone, but there is a plan to move forward, complete with available resources and passionate people. And now we know there will likely be a better future for the Navassa Superfund site.
Want to learn more?
The public is encouraged to get involved. For more resources, start at http://multi-trust.org/navassa-north-carolina. The next public meeting will be held on August 9, 2018 at 6 p.m.