MONTPELIER — It has long been known that the Capitol Plaza Hotel parking lot and adjacent lands have been heavily contaminated over centuries of industrial and commercial activities in the downtown of the Capitol City.
The pollution has called into question whether a $25 million private hotel and city garage proposal on the Capitol Plaza parking lot will add millions more to the cost of the two projects, at taxpayer expense.
A bond vote to pay for the parking garage is set for Nov. 6. But a lengthy history has led up to this point.
The Capitol Plaza site has been under environmental review by the state since 1993, after the Bashara family bought the property for $1.3 million in a bankruptcy sale, following the 1992 flood that devastated the hotel and downtown. The Basharas were ordered to remove underground storage tanks, remove contaminated soil and continuously monitor 11 test wells across the site for contaminants in groundwater.
“Before we bought the hotel in December 1993, I did clean up a few things on the property. I had them pull (underground storage tanks) at my expense before we even bought the property,” Fred Bashara II said. “There were 11 monitoring wells on-site and for the last 24 years we monitored them, and one by one they were all closed.”
He added, “Now we’re just doing some minor testing to ensure that everything is OK. There’s probably always going to be something in the ground. The site that’s contaminated is 1 Taylor Street. This is not contaminated (nearly as much).”
In July 2017, the state finally released the Basharas from environmental monitoring of the site – but reserved the right to request additional future monitoring and remediation. The anticipated start of construction of the hotel and garage projects next month could require further remediation of the site if new tests reveal more contamination. Neither project will proceed without a successful $10.5 million bond vote to pay for the garage in the Nov. 6 election.
Mayor Anne Watson said, “I’m glad that all parties are doing their due diligence to make sure that we take care of the site properly. This sort of thing is pretty normal in downtowns, especially in downtowns as old as ours.”
For context, the remediation of the adjacent Taylor Street transit center and housing complex currently under construction required the removal of 876 tons of contaminated soil. The site was previously used as an agricultural warehouse, stone mason shop, train depot and rail car maintenance yard, and a scrapyard to salvage electrical transformers, automobiles and metal machinery.
The garage site, measuring half an acre, calls for the excavation of a much larger quantity of soil, totaling 4,300 tons. The costs of remediation would be covered by the city’s newly approved Tax Incremental Financing district that funds infrastructure costs for a public project. The Basharas’ new Hampton Inn & Suites hotel would not require excavation below grade level, except to place foundation footings. Soil disturbance is expected to be minimal and cost little by comparison but is not covered by TIF funds because the hotel is a private project.
New tests of both sites are expected soon.
The contamination of the Capitol Plaza site is detailed in two reports. The first was commissioned by RECOLL, the federal agency that handled the bankruptcy sale of the former Days Inn hotel in 1993. It then commissioned a second study to schedule a cleanup of the site.
The first study, by Nobis Engineering, Inc., a hydrological and environmental consulting firm in Concord, New Hampshire, noted that the 2.9-acre lot was the site of various wooden hotels since 1826, (the current brick hotel was built in 1932). It was also the site of a Chrysler dealership, Silloway’s Tire Service, Brown Dry Cleaners (on the site of the current Northfield Savings Bank), and the Tavern Garage (the site of the proposed city garage). There were several underground storage tanks (USTs) on the site that contained heating oil and gasoline. The report noted that the State Street Gulf garage had thirteen 55-gallon drums of gas pumped out of its cellar before the tank was ordered removed. Similarly, the Tavern garage was also found to have a leaking storage tank, and waste oil was poured down a floor drain that emptied into the North Branch river.
“These businesses and the existing Tavern Garage, an automobile repair facility, and the above-mentioned USTs, at the site present a potential for hazardous waste releases to the site environment,” the study said. “Further subsurface explorations and laboratory analyses of soil and groundwater would be required to better assess environmental conditions at the site.”
Based on the findings of the first study, Gemini Geotechnical Associated Inc., of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was commissioned to do an ongoing environmental assessment of the site. The company drilled 11 test borings between 12 and 30 feet, installed eight monitoring wells and tested soil and groundwater samples.
The report said measuring well MW-2, on the site of the dry cleaners, detected “chlorinated hydrocarbons, commonly found in dry cleaning wells and degreasers” in the groundwater. Well MW-3, behind the hotel near Taylor St., detected chloroform in the groundwater. Levels of both were “slightly above regulated maximum concentration limits,” the report said.
Much higher were the levels of petroleum hydrocarbons, particularly in monitoring wells near the Tavern Garage, registering up to 3,300 parts per million. “The petroleum hydrocarbons detected in the soils from MW-6 and MW-7 have impacted the groundwater,” the report said, adding that there was “overall site petroleum hydrocarbon contamination.”
Following the study, The Johnson Group, a Montpelier environmental consulting firm, took charge of continuous monitoring of site wells, under the supervision of the Department of Environmental Conservation. The company is located on the top floor of the Capitol Plaza Hotel.
Subsequently, two monitoring wells near the Tavern Garage were disabled: MW-6 was paved over and MW-7 was destroyed, according to The Johnson Company. Similarly, two monitoring wells further north, were also disabled: MW-4 was destroyed and MW-6 was paved over. No reasons for the disabled wells was recorded. The company was frequently cited by the state for not testing or explaining why it failed to do so.
Tests for chlorinated volatile organic compounds (CVOCs), associated with dry-cleaning fluids, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as gas, fuel oil, petroleum lubricants and wood (from building fires on the site), were conducted from 1993 through 2015.
Three wells closest to the former drycleaners showed breaches of state groundwater enforcement standards until testing in 2015 showed concentrations diminished.
The Johnson Company then requested and was granted permission that all the working wells be permanently closed, except for one nearest the southwest side of the hotel. The state continues to monitor for diminishing discharges from the Capital Deli/Shell gas station on State Street, said hotel owner Fred Bashara II.
In June 2017, the state noted monitoring of CVOC concentrations from monitoring well MW-2 had degraded to dissolved concentrations below state groundwater enforcement standards, opening the way for testing to officially end. However, the report noted that site investigation and groundwater monitoring defined the plume as “confined to beneath the parking lot.”
In July 2017, the Sites Management Section of the Department of Environmental Conservation said that “no unacceptable risk to human health or the environment remains at the site related to the release of gasoline from the former underground storage tanks (UST) or from the release of CVOC perchochoroethyene from the dry-cleaning business.”
It also stated that it did not mean the site is free of contamination or absent other environmental issues. Additional monitoring or remediation related to the former dry-cleaning operation or petroleum tanks may be required in the future, the state added.