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Who pays to clean up what lies beneath Tropicana Field?

ST. PETERSBURG — They are the questions that helped sidetrack talks about a waterfront ballpark. And they remain a primary hurdle for a new stadium, regardless of where it is built. What lies beneath Tropicana Field? And how much will it cost the city to clean up?

Before it was the site of a baseball stadium, the land along First Avenue S between 10th and 16th streets was part of the industrial core of downtown St. Petersburg. Its roster of businesses read like a "who's who" of polluters: fabrication shop, paint warehouse, municipal incinerator, gas manufacturing plant, dry cleaner, two gas stations.

But the environmental conditions at Tropicana Field may not be the stumbling block that many believe, environmental experts, developers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection tell the St. Petersburg Times.

In fact, experts say, whatever cleanup remains at the 86-acre baseball site largely could be offset by state and federal grants and tax incentives.

"I see no hindrance for redeveloping the site," said Charles Hendry, a chemist who has monitored the Tropicana Field site for the past 20 years. "There's no real major environmental handicap."

Tainted history

The history of the stadium site is no environmental fairy tale.

Called the Gas Plant neighborhood, the city ran an active gas manufacturing plant on the site for nearly 50 years. The process relied on huge amounts of coal, which was converted into artificial gas. As a result, excess tars seeped freely into the ground and nearby Booker Creek.

That tar and the toxins it carried were discovered during the construction of the domed stadium in the 1980s.

Ten to 12 acres east of the stadium and Booker Creek were contaminated and the city spent more than $6.4-million to incinerate 152,000 cubic yards of dirt.

Some pockets of the contaminants were allowed to remain with the approval of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Other areas of the site were tested and monitored, said Hendry, now a vice president with the environmental engineering firm ECT. None revealed potential problems, both he and state regulators agree.

But critics point out that the areas where the toxic tar ultimately was discovered were initially tested and found to be free of pollutants.

If tests missed the pollution under the gas manufacturing plant, it is conceivable other pockets could be hiding under asphalt parking lots, said Ed McGrath, an environmental lawyer who was working with critics of the Tampa Bay Rays' waterfront stadium proposal.

"It's highly likely that additional stuff is out there and would have to be dealt with," McGrath said.

Knowns, unknowns

Between 1987 and 1990, the city hauled away the equivalent of 116-million liters of contaminated dirt from Tropicana Field.

Almost another 1.2-million liters of contaminated soil remains, the city says.

Mike Connors, the city's internal services administrator, said it would cost about $100,000 to remove the remaining soil.

Allen W. Hatheway, a geological engineer and leading expert on coal gasification plants, suggested that if the city's estimate of contaminated soil is correct, the cost may be closer to $200,000.

Hatheway, who is publishing a book on coal-to-gas manufacturing plants, said the city should spend the money to clean the site before it's redeveloped.

"They've got the money to do it right," Hatheway said. "It only takes smart people. It doesn't take a magician. … Smart people can figure out what's there, and they can deal with it."

Some of the contaminated dirt is hugging the east side of Booker Creek, near the start of Tropicana Field's main parking lot. But other contaminants are underneath a boardwalk ringing parts of the stadium.

City officials hesitate to rip up the boardwalk while the Rays continue to play at the domed stadium.

City Council member Karl Nurse believes the cleanup is the city's responsibility, but digging up the dirt should wait until the stadium issue is resolved.

"It sounds like there's a logical way to do this without people getting financially hammered," Nurse said.

Other possible problems exist, McGrath said, including the former site of a city incinerator just north of the gas plant. McGrath said workers spread incinerator ash on the ground, and that pollutants likely remain there.

And two service stations likely leaked oil or gas into the ground. McGrath said additional testing is required.

"It's an absolute blessing that we now have more time," McGrath said. "You can do anything to a site like this within reason. You just need the time to do it."

Deed not an issue

At the height of the stadium debate this spring, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection made waves when it demanded the city place a deed restriction on the Tropicana Field site.

The deed restriction, some speculated, was mandatory and would prevent the city from redeveloping the site as the Rays wanted.

Not true.

Explaining the process for the first time, DEP officials said the deed restriction is voluntary. And, they said, it would apply only to the small section where contaminants remain. No restrictions would apply to the vast majority of the 86 acres, they said.

And where there are restrictions, the city could either remove the contaminants or cap the soil with something like the existing parking lot. Even the foundation of a shopping mall could act as a cap, said Roger Register, a former DEP official who is now president of a statewide group that advocates the cleanup and redevelopment of polluted sites.

But if houses or condominiums are proposed, the contaminants would have to be removed, Register said.

City's options

Much of the cleanup could be paid by state and federal agencies through grants and tax incentives, Register and others say.

And whatever the city must cover, could be offset by an increase in the value of the land.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency offers testing and cleanup grants totaling $400,000, officials said.

The EPA also offers up to $1-million through a competitive revolving loan program.

The state, meanwhile, offers large tax incentives for developers building on previously contaminated sites.

Register said developers can receive up to $10,000 in tax credits for each new job it would create at the site.

"Some extraordinarily difficult sites have been converted," said Craig Dunham, who as principal at Pittsburgh developer Rubnoff has been involved with several brownfield redevelopments. "The question isn't can it be done. It's if the community has the will to see it through."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

Who pays to clean up what lies beneath Tropicana Field? 08/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 5:47pm]

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