Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mountain Top Contamination Whispers of Shady Redevelopment

By Duane Craig

Mountain Top PA Trichloroethylene contamination
Events in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania stand as a classic example of how long it takes to get cleanup started on contaminated sites once contamination spreads beyond the initial area, and also shows how creative people become when trying to redevelop contaminated sites.

Trichloroethylene, or TCE, contamination that originated below an old Foster Wheeler Energy Corporation manufacturing facility on Crestwood Drive where pressure boilers were manufactured from 1953 to 1984, has spread in a plume to affect 36 residential water wells along Church Road, according to one report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those homes that relied on well water have been switched to municipal water. Because TCE is also a health threat as a vapor, two of the homes are being fitted with basement venting systems to mitigate the dangers of vapor intrusion. Additional sampling wells are being drilled on Oak Hill Road and at the St. Jude property to identify the progression and current location of the plume. It is currently thought the contamination ends in the area of the Camp St. George land, west of Route 309.

In the meantime, EPA and Foster Wheeler officials reported that samples from other monitoring wells that have been in development since before January 2011 should be available by fall, according to an article in the StandardSpeaker. Foster Wheeler began ground water treatment in 1988 under direction from the EPA, according to this article in The Times Leader. The company entered into a settlement with the EPA that included remedial investigation and preparing a feasibility study under the Superfund alternative approach. That prevented the case from being placed on the National Priorities List as long as Foster Wheeler follows through. Interestingly, Foster Wheeler also sells its environmental planning services to energy and utility and process clients that help them “to identify designs and working methods for site construction and plant operation that meet or exceed all regulations.”

Of course there is an interesting twist in all of this because some of the land that sits over the contaminated area was set up as a new housing development. In what can only be called a convoluted case involving public officials, lawyers-turned-developers, and banks, the contaminated area was subdivided into a high-end housing development originally called The Sanctuary.

Today, it’s known as Whispering Ridge, perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek reference to how those involved in the development must have tried to keep the lid on the fact that they allegedly knew the property was contaminated even as they were gathering the development money from the banks and selling parcels. According to this article in The Times Leader in February 2010, only one resident remained in the development then, while another was walking away from his nearly half million dollar home because the property was so steeply devalued. The development defaulted on $4.5 million in construction loans after only building seven of the 86 planned units.

At a Luzerne County Commissioners’ meeting in mid-2007 a Mountain Top resident thanked the commission for granting he and his affected neighbors a 30 percent reduction in taxes to make up for the devaluation in their properties because of the contamination, but requested they go one step further and give them a break for the years 2004 through 2006. As justification he cited a 70 percent tax break given to Foster Wheeler in 1990, ostensibly for the same reason, according to a report in The Times Leader.

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