ST. PETERSBURG — For two years starting in 2004, as part of a massive $13-million cleanup of Lake Maggiore, trucks hauled and dumped 1.3 million cubic yards of sediment from the lake bottom to the Gateway area and a sod farm.
Fast forward to 2019 and the city of St. Petersburg now is negotiating to spend $1 million to settle a claim that one of the dump sites, at 3110 Grand Ave., near Gandy Boulevard in Pinellas Park, is contaminated with arsenic. If the property owner agrees, no money will change hands, but the city will pay to clean up the site and test the soil that remains.
Last week, the City Council agreed to move forward with the proposed settlement with Dorchester Holdings of Tampa, which owns the property.
"This was done to avoid litigation,'' assistant city attorney Kenneth MacCollom said later. "Essentially, they want the soil removed from the property. As the originator of the soil, it's basically our responsibility to get it out of there."
He said the city learned of the problem in June 2017. That's when RBF Properties sent a letter saying it was planning a mixed-use development at the site, but couldn't move forward until the contaminated soil was removed. According to state corporation records, Dorchester Holdings and RBF Properties share the same leadership. David H. Freeman of Tampa is a managing member of Dorchester and president of RBF.
The Lake Maggiore dredging project had been contemplated for years before work began in earnest in July 2004. Trucks ran 16 hours a day, five days a week, hauling muck north.
MacCollom said that the city had been aware that the sludge was contaminated.
"The soil had arsenic levels, which was why we were disposing of it," he said. "We didn't believe that the levels were so high that there were any issues. The testing that we had done at Lake Maggiore indicated it was acceptable for residential development."
Mark Culbreth, principal scientist with Environmental Consulting & Technology in Tampa, is the city's consultant on the matter.
"When the sediments were initially excavated from Lake Maggiore, the arsenic levels did not exceed regulatory criteria," he agreed. "The sediment consisted of a lot of organic matter in which it is common to find arsenic."
But the levels got higher over time.
"As those sediments sit in a pile, the organic matter decays and as the organic matter decays, the residual arsenic concentrations built up in the soil," Culbreth said.
At the time the muck was being moved, the Dorchester property was owned by developer Grady Pridgen, who had agreed to take the soil, MacCollum said.
Culbreth said he collected five composite soil samples that showed arsenic levels ranging in concentrations from 2.16 milligrams per kilogram to 3.70 milligrams per kilogram.
Shannon Herbon, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency considers arsenic concentrations of under 2.1 milligrams per kilogram safe for residential land use. Anything above would have to be remediated, she said. Accepted levels for commercial and industrial properties are 12 milligrams per kilogram.
Generally, said Herbon, if contamination has been identified at a site, the department has to perform a site assessment before the property can be developed. She added that the agency will work with the responsible party to determine what type of remediation is needed.
She said the agency learned from the consultant on Thursday that the soil will be moved.
"We don't have a lot of information," she said. "We are starting to look into it now."
The proposed $1 million settlement will cover costs to move the soil to a landfill in Manatee County and for "further testing to ensure that everything is out of there," MacCollom said.
The cost is based on the removal of an estimated 30,000 cubic yards of soil, calculated at $33 a ton — one cubic yard weighs one ton. MacCollom said a financial cushion has been built in should more than 30,000 cubic yards of soil need to be moved.
The soil should be removed in the next three weeks, Culbert said.
That could depend on if there's an agreement with Dorchester Holdings.
"We're still working on a draft settlement agreement," MacCollom said.
Martha Collins, a Tampa lawyer representing Dorchester Holdings, said she can't comment "on a proposed settlement agreement that has not yet been executed."
Thomas W. Reese, a longtime environmental and land use lawyer, remembers the Lake Maggiore project.
"I thought they had sent the polluted soil to somewhere that solved the problem," he said.
"If I had polluted soil, I would not have sent it to a private property owner. Some developer then buys it and it keeps rolling around and they want the city to solve the problem that theoretically has been solved. Manatee County might be coming back 20 years from now and say, 'Move your dirt."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.