Dan Haar: English Station cleanup, at least a year away, should now wait for redevelopment
Call it a moral victory at English Station in New Haven. Work is finally underway on remediation of the power plant site on the Mill River, right around the time the project of at least $30 million was supposed to finish.
It won’t be done in 2019 as many people had hoped. And the cleanup might even extend past 2020. By then, we will have plans in place for a redevelopment — perhaps a mixed-use, residential and commercial project with waterfront access.
United Illuminating Co., the former owner charged with the cleanup in a 2015 state order, continues to work with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on final cleanup plans at the 8.9-acre location, laden with PCBs and toxic heavy metals.
“It’s going to be at least one more year but beyond that it’s hard to say at this point,” said Lori Saliby, supervising environmental analyst for storage tanks and PCBs at DEEP, the agency’s point person for English Station.
Don’t bet on the remediation ending before Election Day in 2020.
We don’t even know yet whether UI — which sold the property in 2000 — will demolish the hulking old English Station building itself, or just clean it up to the standards set forth in the order. The power company is still testing the soil and parts of the building, Saliby told me Thursday.
In all of these delays in the cleanup, the site’s current owners are working on what they call a “mixed-income project with recreational areas and water access for both the residents of the project and the Fair Haven neighborhood,” according to a statement from a development firm working with the property owners.
We don’t have details. No one has submitted plans to the city. But talks are underway and it could be much bigger, and much more transformational — yeah, I don’t like that word either, but sometimes it fits — than most of us have imagined.
In short, we have a cleanup that’s taking so long, it’s now overlapping with planning for what comes next. Worse, the way remediation happens now could make the site less suitable and more costly for redevelopment.
That points to an obvious solution: Stop the remediation work immediately. Halt the cleanup planning. Send the contractors home as soon as the finish dismantling what’s left of the circa 1890 building that fronts on Grand Avenue.
Tell UI to chill for a few months until the developers present a plan to the city, and until the plan — whatever it is — receives approval.
Then, when we know what the heavily polluted, man-made Ball Island will look like in 20 years, after all the debates and arguments and public hearings, let’s have everyone come back to the table and hammer out a remediation that serves that purpose. Just as clean, but smarter.
A very bad idea
We all want the PCB’s and other toxic industrial waste removed from the site as soon as possible. But it’s been polluted for at least 120 years, folks. One more year to do this right won’t kill us.
Why move forward on a remediation that meets the letter of state environmental law but leaves the site useless or handicapped for new development?
It’s not just a hypothetical. Until late this past spring, UI’s plan for remediation would leave contaminants on the site, including some PCB’s, encapsulated under a giant mound that would dominate the central portion of the property. It would rise eight or nine feet above the bulkhead at its highest point, a fairly steep slope.
That mound of clean fill would be covered with asphalt for much of its surface — asphalt that developers couldn’t break into without extensive permits and new remediation.
Bad idea. I started asking DEEP about it in the spring when, according to documents and interviews, people connected with the project believed it was a done deal. Saliby’s unit rejected it as soon as it came in, she said.
The latest idea, approved July 1, is for UI to remove the PCB’s from the site but leave some toxic metals, encapsulated in a covering that raises the level evenly on the parcel by four feet. That’s better for future development and will cost an extra $350,000.
But is it optimal? Of course not.
Optimal would be coordinating with whatever plan the developer wants to bring — after a full airing and public debate, of course.
Everyone has a different idea of what’s best for the city at this key location. It’s an island on a picturesque, if heavily polluted river in a larger oasis of industry and switching stations, all of it standing strategically between downtown and Fair Haven, a poor but bustling neighborhood with a lot of history and architectural beauty.
Only with a plan in hand would it make sense for UI, DEEP, the city and the land owners and developers to apportion the remediation. UI would pay for the cost of meeting the 2015 order and the developer would pay the rest.
Amazing! We would have a remediation and a site plan that work together. Maybe by then, we could also have a plan to clean up the Mill River. Remember, that part is still in dispute between UI, DEEP and others. It was not part of the 2015 state order that UI agreed to follow.
High risk either way
The key players are understandably hesitant to halt remediation now, after years of prep work that’s finally showing progress.
“UI has obligations under the partial consent order issued by DEEP. Its priority is collaborating with DEEP and complying with DEEP directives on the remediation,” said Tara Morgan, spokeswoman fpr Avangrid, the Orange-based parent of UI, which itself is owned by Iberdrola, a Spanish utility holding company.
Saliby, the official at DEEP, makes the point that real estate plans are famously flighty, so there’s a risk in waiting and working with a developer as part of a state-mandated cleanup.
“You know that the site has changed hands many times,” she said, adding that the previous ownership group took actions that made the cleanup more difficult and expensive.
“They may start down that road and the developer says, ‘You know, there’s a better site, I’m out of here,’ ” Saliby warned.
She’s absolutely right, all the more so with a recession most likely coming. But a surety bond from the developer could control the risk. Besides, we could always pull the plug on a cooperative plan and move ahead with the state order. We will have lost a year at worst, while trying to make something big happen the right way.
“We hope to be able to work closely with the State, the City and UI to remediate the site in a way which will make our development possible,” the New York development firm, GMP Real Estate Solutions, said in a written statement to me.
Steve Fontana, the city’s deputy economic development director, is skeptical that this is the best place for residential development, especially large-scale. “They like this site, which is their right, but I think that it’s going to prove very difficult to do what they envision,” he said.
Difficult at best; impossible without working together. It’s worth the small risk of waiting at a time when few developers are bringing cranes to Connecticut, in a city that stands as the state’s best hope to join the great urban renaissance of 21st century America before the door finally closes.