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Discovery of pollution adds $2 million to cost of Brookhaven’s new city hall

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Discovery of pollution adds $2 million to cost of Brookhaven’s new city hall

FILE PHOTO USED FOR ILLUSTRATION PURPOSES: Brookhaven City Manager Christian Sigman, Council Members John Funny and Madeleine Simmons, Mayor John Ernst, and Council Members Linley Jones and Jen Owens broke ground on the $78 million new city hall project to be located at the Brookhaven-Oglethrope MARTA Station on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

This story has been updated. 

Brookhaven, GA — Before the city of Brookhaven can build its new city hall, the city will need to spend up to $2.2 million to remediate the property due to environmental contaminants found at the site. 

The property is located at the corner of Peachtree Road and North Druid Hills. The projected cost of the project is $78 million, according to the city. 

Brookhaven did not conduct any environmental reviews of the property before leasing it from MARTA. The city didn’t know about the property’s environmental concerns until field engineers noticed a smell emanating from the dirt in February 2023 and decided they needed to analyze the soil.

A rendering shows Brookhaven’s new City Hall that will be located at the Brookhaven-Oglethorpe MARTA Station. Photo courtesy of the city of Brookhaven.

MARTA said it made Brookhaven aware that the property might need remediation before signing the lease. The agreement, signed in 2022, is for 50 years and the city has an option to retain ownership at the end of that time.

The city contracted NOVA Engineering and Environmental, a consulting company, to analyze the conditions at the site and to help develop a Prospective Purchasers Corrective Action plan for the Georgia Environmental Protection Divison’s Brownfield program.

The Brownfield plan does two things: 

1. Protects the city from liability as a prospective purchaser of the property and relieves them of cleaning up any impacted groundwater 

2. Notifies EPD of the site’s conditions so it can oversee the remediation plans

In November, EPD approved the city’s plan, which was submitted last August, EPD told Decaturish. While the plan gives the city a path forward for the site, it does not provide funding for the cleanup. 

“In order to maintain the current construction schedule and keep the project moving forward, the city has funded the $2.2 million but is working with other entities to try and obtain grants or aid, to help pay or offset the costs of remediating this previously unknown condition,” city of Brookhaven spokesperson, Burke Brennan told Decaturish. 

Who knew what, when?

In 2015 and 2016, an engineering firm, URS, conducted environmental assessments for MARTA on the “eastern and western portions of the station area parking,” MARTA spokesperson Stephany Fisher told Decaturish. 

Because of the site’s history “along Peachtree and the presence of the freight railway,” the firm recommended that a second assessment be done. 

When asked if the city of Brookhaven was made aware that the property might require remediation before signing the lease in 2022, Fisher said, “Yes, and the city was provided with ample time leading up to and following the execution of the ground lease to perform due diligence prior to moving forward with the City Hall design and construction.”

Brennan said that’s not the case.

When asked when it was made aware of the environmental concerns at the property, Brennan said it wasn’t until February 2023, which was after the city signed the lease.

There was no environmental review prior to entering into the lease/purchase agreement with MARTA,” Brennan said. “During the Geotechnical analysis work being completed to collect soil information for the structural engineer to use in their calculations…conducted in February 2023, the field engineers noticed smells emanating from the soil and recommended that further analysis of the soil be completed.”

The city consulted with NOVA and “it was recommended that further drilling/analysis be completed to determine if the soil was impacted to better understand the extent of the potential impacted soils and develop a plan of action to remediate the soils, if needed,” Brennan said. 

Together, Brookhaven, NOVA and MARTA worked to put together the city’s Prospective Purchaser Corrective Action Plan for Georgia EPD’s Brownfield program. 

As part of its lease agreement with MARTA, the city is set to pay for the soil remediation with no financial assistance from MARTA. 

What contaminants are on the site?

While the property has been a MARTA parking lot since at least the 1980s, the site has been commercially developed since the 1920s. 

The property has been home to dry cleaners, gas stations, and auto repair shops, each of which could have polluted the property. 

Old dry cleaner sites can be a source of volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, while gas stations can leave behind petroleum products, said Camilla Warren, a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 4 office. 

In 2017 and 2019 NOVA conducted environmental assessments as part of a separate project involving widening Peachtree Road. 

In those results, NOVA found VOCs and metals in soil samples, but they did not exceed the Georgia EPD safety limits. However, VOCs Semi-VOCs and metals were detected in groundwater samples, two of which exceeded the EPD limits: tetrachloroethene, which is linked to multiple health impacts, and trichloroethene, a carcinogen

As part of its assessment for the city in 2023, NOVA conducted soil and groundwater sampling. 

In soil samples, it found “multiple petroleum and chlorinated solvent VOC constituents,” and “petroleum SVOC constituents” that exceeded the lab reporting limits. The benzene found in one of the samples exceeded EPD limits. None of the Semi-VOCs exceeded EPD limits.

NOVA also found heavy metals such as barium, chromium and/or lead in all of its soil samples but the concentrations were below EPD limits. 

In groundwater samples, NOVA found “Multiple VOC constituents” and “Select SVOC constituents” that were above lab limits. While some of the VOCs were in concentrations that exceeded the EPD limits, the Semi-VOCs did not.

Lastly, NOVA conducted what is known as a vapor intrusion analysis to look at how contaminant gasses from soil or groundwater could flow into buildings on the property. NOVA analyzed the samples from the perspective of exposure to a residential area, “due to the intended future residential use,” of the property, the city’s plan said. 

The results found VOCs such as benzene, ethylbenzene, tetrachloroethene and trichloroethene. The plan said based on the analysis, the city will have to mitigate the gasses and work with EPD to develop a plan.

Brookhaven still intends to develop the site

The city is invested in ensuring its new building is on this property, hence the $2.2 million it’s spending on cleanup. 

It was important from a long-term perspective for the city hall to be near transit options and MARTA was agreeable to public investment on the property to anchor high quality private development at the MARTA site in the future,” Brennan said. 

And while the site’s environmental history does set the city back financially, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities that the city would find a site with a shady environmental past, especially with how developed land around DeKalb County is.

Warren, with the EPA, said there are a variety of sites across metro Atlanta that were impacted environmentally, be it from industrial plants such as steel mills, old warehouses, gas stations, dry cleaners, or even local landfills. 

“So you can basically take the Brownfield and reuse it in any way, as long as there’s no exposure routes to the people who are using the site,” Warren said. 

Increased environmental knowledge and property histories allow local, state, and federal governments to learn and understand how previously contaminated sites can be cleaned up and reused, so the land does not go to waste. This is especially important in places with large populations and highly developed areas.

How will the city remediate the site?

About 98% of the soil that was in the “footprint” of the city hall area was removed and taken to a certified landfill as of Jan. 9, the city said. 

“Once impacted soils required by the Brownfield Program to be remediated were removed, sampling and field screening were done to confirm that all soils remaining were at or below the identified limits,” Brennan said.  “A Vapor Intrusion Mitigation Plan is in development and will be installed to address any vapor concerns that may exist per GA EPD Vapor Guidance.”

Warren said vapor intrusion mitigation is a newer analysis that involves looking at how to ventilate the contaminated gasses through buildings. 

“Buildings are pretty complicated now,” Warren said. “So they put systems in them for improving air quality, beyond the environmental situation.”

For groundwater cleanup, the city’s Prospective Purchaser Corrective Action Plan says the city will work with EPD to decide whether they need to further analyze the groundwater. 

The responsible party, or the previous owner, would be responsible for groundwater cleanup, if required,” EPD said. In this case, that would be MARTA.

According to the city’s plan, its corrective action and compliance report will be submitted to EPD in August 2026.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about the city’s response to the pollution on the property. This story has been updated with the correct information.

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