Contamination brings transload deal back again

Mar. 02, 2014 @ 10:14 AM

After environmental contamination derailed a previous deal for Lenoir and Caldwell County to buy the freight-transfer operation known as the transload facility, a smaller, less expensive deal emerged.

But while the Caldwell County Board of Commissioners signed off on it a month ago, the new proposal awaits a decision by the Lenoir City Council — which has not publicly discussed it, scheduled it for consideration any time soon and has no timetable for doing so.

When asked whether city council members have expressed any reservations about the new deal, City Manager Lane Bailey said it was “premature” to talk about any concerns city officials might have.

City leaders have “had some discussions about it,” Bailey said, but have not come to a consensus or set a deadline for a decision.

Lenoir City Council members held up the last deal for several months. The county commissioners voted unanimously Nov. 19, 2012, to approve the city and county paying $900,000 for 11 acres, including all on-site equipment, with the county paying two-thirds of the cost, or $600,000. But the city council faced some vocal public opposition and didn’t approve the deal until April 2 in a 5-2 vote — with several of those who voted in favor saying they weren’t happy with it. For instance, Councilman Todd Perdue questioned the role of government in supervising a private business.

“If it’s valuable to us, it should be valuable to someone else,” Perdue said at the time. “I just don’t like the city being in the business.”

Several council members said that despite their misgivings they felt obligated to approve the deal because the transload facility was vital to several important companies.

The city and county stopped use of more than 5 miles of railroad, from just south of the current Google site north toward Sealed Air Corp. off Valway Road, in 2007 as part of an agreement to get Google to choose Lenoir for a data center. The tracks pass near the site Google chose, and Google contended that the vibrations of trains passing nearby would disturb its computer equipment. But because several companies relied on the rails, the city and county agreed to set up a transload facility at Robinson Lumber at 2402 Norwood St., where shipments could be transferred between rail cars and trucks going to and from the companies.

Over the past several years, the city and county have gone back and forth on proposals for purchasing the property, hitting roadblocks on terms of the lease and purchase agreements.

After the city finally signed off on a deal last April, a new wrench entered the machinery the very next month: an environmental study showing high levels of arsenic and petroleum contaminants on portions of the property. And Robinson Lumber, which is owned by George Robinson, since has gone into foreclosure.

After the finding of contamination, the deal fell through, Bailey said.

An environmental study by IBS Environmental Services in Lenoir, done in two phases, showed high levels of arsenic, cadmium and petroleum residues at different places on the lumber yard property, most at the site where lumber was dipped in chemicals to treat the wood to protect it against the elements. Contaminants were much higher than remediation goals in many sites, including one sample that found 104 milligrams per kilogram of arsenic, which would have to be reduced to 26.2 mg/kg to be considered acceptable, and a sample that had 711 mg/kg of oil and grease, compared to the goal of 250.

The terms of the new deal would exclude all of the Robinson Lumber property where contamination was found, reducing the purchase site’s overall area to eight acres and the price to $300,000. This time, though, the cost would be evenly split between the city and county.

An unnamed company has shown interest in purchasing the six acres containing the contamination, city and county officials said.

But this deal may fall through as well since the agreement passed by the county stipulates that the site be clean of any environmental concerns before it is purchased.

Neither the city or county is expecting a clean-up on the property, since the majority of contaminants were found at an area that is no longer going to be purchased as part of the transload facility.

According to a letter dated Feb. 17 from Robert J. King of Brooks Pierce, a Greensboro law firm, the risk of the city and county being held liable for harm from the contaminants on the property they would not be buying is low. County Manager Stan Kiser said he sought out the advice as a matter of regular business, something he does for each property purchase the county makes.

Though the county commissioners have twice voted unanimously for the purchase, that doesn’t mean they have no reservations about it, said Clay Bollinger, chairman of the county board of commissioners. But having closed the rail line, there are few options.

“Nobody wants the transload,” Bollinger said, “but the county’s obligated."