The revitalization of the former Spencer’s Inc. industrial complex in Mount Airy soon will be taking another key step through efforts to resolve environmental issues on the property.
Upcoming work will focus on two main concerns, the removal of two underground storage tanks at the site in downtown Mount Airy and the taking of soil samples around those tanks to pinpoint environmental damage. The tanks’ presence was identified as an area of concern through a Phase One environmental assessment completed by a consultant last December.
However, issues with the tanks and possible contaminated soil are not expected to hamper development of the sprawling Spencer’s holdings that were acquired by the city government in an auction last year.
“Nothing was found at the property that was not manageable, or unexpected,” city Community Development Director Martin Collins told members of the Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission during a meeting Wednesday. That group was created in 2014 to oversee the Spencer’s revitalization.
Spencer’s officials obviously needed fuel tanks on the property to run their apparel-manufacturing operation, including a 20,000-gallon tank between two building complexes which contained heating oil, and a 4,000 tank for gasoline adjacent to Willow Street. “There’s actually a gas pump there,” Collins said of the latter.
“The tanks are dry,” he added Wednesday. “One is a good-quality tank — where you get into the weeds a little bit is it replaced two old tanks.”
Once the containers are removed, testing will occur to determine the condition of the surrounding soil. “There are 50 locations where they want to bore and take soil samples,” Collins said of federal and state representatives overseeing the process. In addition to apparel manufacturing, the property was used for other purposes over a 120-year span.
The environmental condition of the Spencer’s property is a major concern with future uses of it, since redevelopment can be hindered by real or perceived environmental contamination of such abandoned or underutilized properties known as brownfield sites.
The process now under way involving Mount Airy, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is aimed at protecting future developers.
Since last year, local officials have been addressing the environmental concerns through the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments, a group made up of 12 communities in the region including Mount Airy. The Piedmont council is serving as a required non-profit conduit for the seeking of grants to finance the local environmental work.
Steve Yokeley, a city councilman who chairs the Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission, said during Wednesday’s meeting that $10,000 in non-local funding has been spent over the past eight months or so for this purpose. City officials have said that about $30,000 in federal dollars eventually could be received for cleanup work here.
An entity known as APEX, which is serving as environmental consultant for the city, completed the Phase One assessment of the property in December which identified several areas there in need of further evaluation including the tanks.
After funds were approved for a Phase Two environmental assessment on the former Spencer’s property in May, APEX began preparing a Quality Assurance Project Plan to document planning, implementation and assessment procedures for the site.
That plan was submitted to the state and federal agencies in June, which led to discussions with the EPA and N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources last Friday.
“It went well,” Collins said. “There were some changes that were requested.”
The final plan is to be submitted this Friday.
This is expected to lead to the scheduling of subcontractors for the tank removals and soil sampling, which could begin as early as September.
“By the end of the year, any developer that comes in there will pretty much know” what will be involved with future uses of the former Spencer’s property, Collins said.
One reason for undertaking the environmental assessment was to determine existing conditions at the site, which has basically been under lockdown for months to prevent any new contamination.
If any major problems are uncovered during the upcoming work, the municipality will be protected in terms of its liability, since the process will identify the causative agent for those issues — the party responsible before the city took over the property.
Under the North Carolina Brownfields Program, an agreement can be entered into with a future developer which effectively provides a covenant not to sue as long as the developer makes a site suitable for a proposed re-use. The agreement specifies actions to be taken by the developer to ensure this.
This liability protection is passed on to any new owners provided they adhere to land-use restrictions, which Collins has said makes site remedies less costly and time-consuming along with limiting liability for any future development.
“I realize it’s time-consuming,” Collins said during Wednesday’s redevelopment commission meeting.
“But they’ve got guidelines and there is no cutting corners,” he said of the outside parties involved in making the property ready for new uses when that comes.
“We’re eight months closer than we were in December.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.