NEWS- Oh, well: County okays church in gas leak area

The proposed site for a new church on U.S. 250 east is surrounded by petroleum spills, some of which were never remediated. Albemarle Planning Commission okayed the special use permit October 9.

There are hundreds of petroleum spills in this area– just put in a FOIA request to the Department of Environmental Quality for an eye-opening list of businesses, residences, and schools.

But not all spills are created equal. DEQ calls them LUSTs– leaking underground storage tanks– and while most are pretty benign, some aren't.

A Stone-Robinson Elementary School parent remembers going to the water fountain at a PTO meeting back in the 1980s, taking a drink, and announcing, "This water tastes like gasoline." Another parent, Kathleen Klumpp, says she could smell petroleum before the water touched her lips.

A new well was drilled– and that one was contaminated. A third well was drilled, and in 1992, Albemarle County agreed to move the school onto the municipal water system– a move the growth-cautious county is always reluctant to allow in the rural areas. 

Just down Route 250 from Stone-Robinson is another biggie on the petroleum spill list: GoCo Bulk Oil facility. That, too, joined Stone-Robinson on the water line, and no remediation was done, according to Albemarle County. Other LUST sites in the area include Luck Stone, which was remediated, Shadwell Food Mart, S.W. Williamson, VDOT Residency Shop, and Clifton Inn.

DEQ's Todd Pitsenberger pulls no punches: "There's known contamination in the area," he says.

Nonetheless, Albemarle's Planning Commission approved a special use permit October 9 for the First Church of the Nazarene to build a new church on U.S. 250 east at the intersection of Rt. 22 at the edge of historic Edgehill Farm. Until alerted by a citizen, county staff, when it recommended approval of the permit, was unaware of possible contamination.

Tamara Ambler, Albemarle's natural resources manager, says there's no requirement for the county to be aware of possible hazardous spills when it approves a special use permit. "So things like this get missed," she says.

Here's how the process is supposed to work: when a special use permit is applied for, the site plan and application go to the Health Department. "Their role is to review it," explains county spokeswoman Lee Catlin. "This includes checking it against the underground storage list DEQ maintains. We're checking to see why that did not happen in this case."

Over in the Health Department, which has dominion over all well permits, environmental health manager Jeff McDaniel says his staff did look at the First Nazarene site plan. "When we're requested to evaluate a site plan, we look to see if there are any issues," he says. 

But according to McDaniel, state code calls for the Health Department to become involved only at the building permit stage. That's when the Health Department would alert the well-driller of the contaminants oozing in nearby soils.

 "At this point we haven't gotten a request for a well or septic," says McDaniel. "At the time of application for a permit, we'd tell them about sites in the area."

One person not surprised that the future church site is surrounded by petroleum leaks is First Church of the Nazarene Pastor Bill Willis. 

"It's a non-issue," says Willis. He's reassured that the GoCo and Stone Robinson contamination files are closed with the DEQ– although such closure does not mean that the leaks were remediated.

"We knew there had been a spill years ago across the street," says Willis. "We knew it had nothing to do with our property." He says the church land is on higher ground, and he's been told the contamination is unlikely to migrate.

Two wells are already on the property, which had been a farm. "We're going to test the wells," says Willis. "We're not going to buy land where we can't get clean water."

The property owner is exactly where DEQ's Pitsenberger puts responsibility for making sure groundwater isn't contaminated, because there isn't any requirement for anyone else to test it. "It's due diligence to determine if the water is at risk," Pitsenberger says.

Albemarle County did pass an ordinance in 2005 requiring that wells be drilled before building permits are issued. That same year, it passed an emergency ordinance that any well within 2,000 feet of known contamination– in that case, the massive 1,700-foot Trading Post plume in the Red Hill area– get tested before a building permit is issued.

The church originally was going to have a daycare center at the Rt. 250 site, but removed that from the special use permit request, much to the relief of Pat Napoleon, a former Cismont resident. "I think it's a mistake to bring that church in there across from the [Luck Stone] quarry," she says. 

And if the water is contaminated, "I do object to them hooking onto county water," she says.

Napoleon used to be a teacher at Stone-Robinson, and remembers when the school's water tasted like eau de petroleum in the mid-'80s. 

She also worries about the air quality at the school from the blasting at Luck Stone, and whether school children are breathing asbestos and silica dust. "The teachers have a lot of coughs," says Napoleon, who adds that her own breathing problems stopped when she retired three years ago. 

Klumpp, a former parent at the school and a respiratory therapist, also noticed the dust that can cover the school. "I close off my vents when I drive in that area," she says.

Stone-Robinson principal Ashby Kindler says she's had no calls from parents concerned about the quarry dust in her seven years at the school. "Staff on occasion has talked about the dust on the cars," she says. And according to Kindler, a DEQ staffer told her that for the site to be considered hazardous, there had to be continued exposure to the dust over eight hours. The staffer reported that the quarry posed no significant risk to the school. 

She calls Luck Stone "a really good neighbor," and says the company tries to schedule blasting after 2:15pm.

"We do extensive monitoring in Charlottesville and all our operations," says Doug Palmore, director of risk management at Luck Stone. "We have never identified an issue that would pose a risk."

Palmore says the levels of asbestos in the dust are so small– 100 times less than the regulatory limit– that the dust can be considered "asbestos free," says Palmore. And Charlottesville has an usually low amount of silica, he says. "The activities we do don't create very small particles," he says, referring to the ones that cause silicosis.

"If we do a good job controlling the dust, which we do, then there are not exposure issues," Palmore adds.

Ron Phillips is air quality manager at DEQ, and he says no state testing has been done at the school, nor has he ever heard any concerns about air safety at Stone-Robinson. "If there is that concern, we could probably initiate a study," he says.

For Napoleon, those assurances aren't enough. "I witnessed quarry workers wearing protective gear," she says. "There was none for the kids."



Just don't drink the Holy Water. Problem solved.

The county is assuming all the risk here because if there is contamination, it will be put in the position of having to hook the church up to public water.

I think the church is a good use. You generally don't bathe or drink much water at church.

Churches are used for housing in times of disaster, in which case exposure would be minimal and bottled water can be consumed.

Or, as Imbrie points out, hook it to public water.

"They aren't making any more land," so we have to deal with what's available.

Petroleum all in all is far from the worst possible contaminant.