This story was updated Oct. 10, 2018, at 6:48 p.m. to include a document.
“Mayor Berke needs to clean this up, or at least let us exchange houses with him for a while so he can live here and see this everyday.”
Standing on the same site where Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke promised nearly two years ago to soon clean up the remnants of an abandoned textile mill, Lupton City residents Wednesday accused Berke and other city leaders of lying to them about the cleanup.
"Today, 15 months after work was supposed to start on cleaning this up, we still have this deplorable monstrosity of rubble," said Patti Mitchell, a homeowner who has lived across from the mill site for the past 15 years. "We know there are chemicals in the ground and we know it takes time and we want it done right. But there is a lot of time that is unaccountable for after the city and county assumed this property through unpaid taxes."
The former Dixie Yarns and R.L. Stowe thread mill, which ceased operation in 2009 after 87 years of operation, was acquired in 2012 by an Atlanta investment group that removed usable bricks, metal and wood from the abandoned plant. But that group, known as Lupton City LLC , failed to clean up the rubble left behind on the 12-acre site and ultimately lost the property when it went out of business and failed to pay local taxes.
The city and county acquired the contaminated mill site in the summer of 2017 but have not yet submitted any remediation plan to state regulators to clean up and clear the property.
The site contains a number of toxic materials that require remediation and residents complained Wednesday that the old mill site is a breeding ground for misquotes, rodents and crime and hurts the value of their properties.
"We've been lied to a couple of times," said Mark Mullins, president of the Fairfax Heights, Bagwell City and Lupton City Neighborhood Association. ""First, the company that tore all this down told me that when they leave, this would all be green grass. Now, we're experiencing the same thing from the city."
City officials said they have uncovered more contamination in the soil than originally projected so cleaning up the brownfield site is proving more difficult than expected when faster time schedules were announced in early 2017 and again in March and September of this year.
"Environmental investigations indicate that the primary contaminant in soil is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from the creosote treated wooden floors at the former mill," said Kim Schofinski, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. "Additional environmental conditions at the site consist of minor chlorinated solvent impacts to groundwater, minor polychlorinated biphenyl impacts to soil, and naphthalene in soil gas."
Schofinski said the property "does not represent an imminent or substantial danger to public health or the environment.
"Through the Voluntary Oversight Assistance Program, TDEC's primary focus will be to work with the city to ensure that the site continues to pose no unacceptable risk to human health and the environment and that any proposed redevelopment activity also does not pose a risk to the community," Schofinski said.
Justin Holland, administrator of the city's Department of Public Works, said the city expects to hire a contractor and to begin work on the site by next March. The city must still finalize its cleanup plan, take bids for the work and award a contract through the city's public bidding process.
"We understand the mill site remains a blighted area in this neighborhood, and its condition is frustrating to the families who live nearby," Holland said in a statement. "Remediating the site is an extremely complex project. As soon as the Chattanooga City Council approved the funding for this project last fall, we began working on a solution to convert this brownfield into a clean and safe greenfield."
The city budgeted $1.5 million in fiscal 2017-2018 for the cleanup and put in another $250,000 for the project this year.
In a statement Wednesday, city officials said additional contaminants were found in the mill rubble in January 2018, requiring a more extensive soil remediation plan. Richel Albright, a spokesperson for Mayor Andy Berke, said S&ME, the city's geotechnical contractor, "is putting final touches on the soil management plan this week" to submit to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation for approval of a Voluntary Remediation Agreement.
Although the developers of Riverton approached the city about cleaning up the site themselves — and potentially saving the city's $1.7 million expense for cleanup — Albright said the city is required to go through a public bid process for any land disposition.
The delay in any cleanup or sale has left dozens of nearby residents frustrated.
"We're angry and we feel like third and fourth class citizens," said Frank Clardy, a 69-year-old homeowner who has lived in Lupton City his whole life and whose home overlooks the mill rubble. "Mayor Berke needs to clean this up, or at least let us exchange houses with him for a while so he can live here and see this everyday."
Patricia Steinaway, another Lupton City homeowner, said city officials told local residents the cleanup work would start in 2017 and that environmental processes for such work had already been done.
"Why were we told these [environmental assessment and review] processes were complete, only to now be told, "Oh no, those processes are not complete and now it is going to take another three to six months before they are.'?" Steinaway asked. "That is what has got us angry, frustrated and wondering what the city is actually doing."
Frank Williamson, who was cited on Sept. 28th for overgrown grass on a house he is now renovating along with a 90-year-old neighbor, also questioned why the city is concerned about lawn grass that is 6 to 8 inches high on private property when the city's own property across the street has overgrown vegetation and toxic materials.
"Why is the city spending taxpayer dollars to issue citations to those of us who are making improvements to our property about the height of our grass when the city won't take ownership of cleaning up this mess on their property that we are forced to look at every day?" he asked.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340