• U.S.

Full-Court Cleanup

6 minute read
Cathy Booth Thomas/Dallas

This fall, when the Dallas Mavericks basketball team takes the court and the Dallas Stars don their hockey skates, they will do so in a new $420 million downtown arena, where fans can dine on tortilla soup and sushi, watch replays on an 80,000-lb. scoreboard and anticipate the day (coming soon) when Internet data ports at their seats will keep them wired even when the action below does not. Chances are no one will be giving a second thought to the toxic mess that was here just four years ago–an industrial wasteland of asbestos and lead, arsenic and benzene and the carcinogenic remains of a 19th century crematory.

The American Airlines Center, which opened last week with a sellout concert by the Eagles, is the centerpiece of the 72-acre Victory project, one of the nation’s largest and most successful cleanups of a “brownfield”–the Environmental Protection Agency’s term for contaminated areas with the potential for reuse. Rising from the ashes of a 100-year-old city dump, a railroad maintenance facility, an aging power plant and a row of abandoned grain silos, the Victory project is a $1 billion development catering to road-weary Dallasites who want to live, work and play downtown.

“Victory is a model for brownfield development. What used to be an empty field has real potential to boost downtown Dallas,” says local EPA boss Stan Hitt, whose offices overlook the arena site. Mayor Ron Kirk, who supported the project despite early opposition in town, is fairly beaming. “The manufacturers and polluters abandoned this 30 years ago, but we’ve cleaned it up and put it back on the tax rolls,” he says. And Victory is just one big win for Dallas. Not counting that project, the city has leveraged $600,000 in EPA grants into $835 million in private investment, remaking some 1,200 acres of brownfields.

Dallas isn’t alone in recognizing that developers hungry for cheap industrial sites help keep dollars and jobs from fleeing to the suburbs. Environmentalists too are beginning to see brownfields’ redevelopment as a way to preserve pristine spaces in the exurbs. Even the EPA, whose Superfund efforts in the 1980s caused many landlords to fence in and lock up sites, has loosened its regulatory oversight since 1995. While developers could technically still be held liable for past contamination, nonlitigation agreements between Washington and 16 states–including Texas–are a wink and a nod by the feds to encourage the cleanup of sites with lesser contamination. “If we can provide Superfund liability relief to people who clean up and redevelop brownfields, we will encourage more cleanup throughout the private sector,” EPA boss Christine Todd Whitman told TIME. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed brownfield legislation with liability relief last April, and a House bill, further protecting developers from pollution lawsuits, may be introduced this week.

A national brownfields initiative, launched five years ago by Vice President Al Gore, has a new champion in George W. Bush, who budgeted $98 million for the effort this year–$5 million more than Bill Clinton. “The Superfund program of today has evolved and is focusing not only on protecting public health and the environment but also on reuse and development,” Whitman says.

The nation’s largest brownfield project by far is Bethlehem Steel’s $1.5 billion plan to convert its Pennsylvania home into a commercial and cultural site, including the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of Industrial History. Denver’s old Stapleton Airport, an 8-sq.-mi. brownfield, will be ripped up for homes and shops set amid waterways. In all, the EPA estimates there are 450,000 brownfields–and possibly a million–nationwide.

The man behind the Dallas arena and Victory cleanup is Ross Perot Jr., 42, CEO of Hillwood Development Co. and son of the former presidential hopeful. Perot rammed the project through a fractious Dallas political scene, getting the EPA and Texas regulators onboard even before taxpayers in 1998 approved (by just 1,642 votes out of 125,000) a tourist tax to raise $125 million for the planned $225 million arena. The price tag soared to $420 million thanks to such amenities as recessed lighting, terrazzo mosaic floors, barbecue grills and ramps graded for easy elephant access. “We got carried away,” Perot admits merrily, even though he is picking up the additional tab along with the Mavericks and the Stars.

The Victory cleanup, by comparison, was dirt cheap: $12 million for the one-mile-long site that will house the arena and 8 million sq. ft. of apartments, offices, stores and entertainment. The scrub was difficult, involving 25-plus parcels of land with virtually no records on possible contaminants. To complicate matters, 40% of downtown Dallas’ electricity and all its natural-gas lines ran through the property. No one knew that 10 acres of incinerated junk–the charred remains of everything from hospital bedpans to whiskey bottles–lay buried beneath the surface.

To chart the hazards, environmental consultants Halff Associates and HBC Engineering/Terracon pored over Sanborn Fire Insurance maps from the late 1800s and old city directories to locate chemical warehouses, junkyards and gas stations. Engineers walked the property with equipment that detected heavy-metal deposits, then bored some 600 holes and collected more than 5,000 soil and water samples. A color-coded map showed the worst problems: pink for lead and arsenic, green for petroleum and purple for benzo(a)pyrene, a carcinogenic by-product of garbage incineration.

Plain old dirt and fill proved to be the biggest headache. For 100 years, the area was a dumping ground for ash and cinder containing cancer-causing substances called PAHs, or polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (think of the charred stuff left on your barbecue grill). In all, Victory developers moved 750,000 cu. yds. of dirt, with nearly half so hopelessly “dirty” that it was carted away in 15,000 huge truckloads. Because previous landowners like Union Pacific were paying some of the cleanup costs, accountants had to track each spadeful.

The Dallas arena stands on land used since the early 1900s for power-plant cooling ponds, a relatively harmless problem compared with the arena’s parking lot, built where fuel storage tanks once leaked cancer-causing benzene into groundwater. (In all, 15 million gal. of tainted groundwater had to be cleaned.) The office tower and apartment complex being developed by Perot’s partner, Southwest Sports Group chief Tom Hicks, will rise over what was once the railroad maintenance yard. The cleanup team there found what they sarcastically called a “glory hole” of petroleum contamination, requiring excavations 30 ft. down.

Forty-seven states, not content to wait for congressional action on brownfield, already have voluntary cleanup programs. “There’s a realization that if you remove the dangerous elements, you don’t have to return these sites to God’s green earth,” says Mark Johnson, editor of the Chicago-based Brownfield News. “It’s far better to have a degree of cleanup than no cleanup at all.”

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