NEWS- D-Day: Dump clean-up deadline looms, worries neighbors

Can this junkyard be cleaned?

A massive fire that could seen for miles away three years ago brought public scrutiny to a junkyard in elegant Cismont that Albemarle County had for years mistakenly said was grandfathered– despite neighbors' complaints dating back to 1976.

Owners Cecil and Doris Gardner have until December 30 to clean up their 16-acre former dumping ground, and some neighbors are worried that isn't going to happen.

"I seriously doubt that," says Campbell Road neighbor Ann Fox.

"This is kind of a critical time with the dump," says Pat Napoleon. "I don't have a good feeling about it. We've been promised they'd restore the land to pre-dump condition."

Of further concern to Napoleon: Department of Environmental Quality testing shows higher levels of arsenic in the soil, as well as "hydrocarbon byproducts," according to a DEQ report. 

When petroleum products such as tires are burned, a benzene ring is left, says Jed Pascarella at the DEQ.  Benzene is a carcinogen, but is not a concern at the levels found at the Gardners, he says.

Nor are the elevated levels of arsenic, which occurs naturally in the soil. "The arsenic concentration is higher than residential and industrial levels, says Pascarella, but such levels are within normal ranges of what can occur naturally in soils.

The DEQ also took water samples from the wells of the Gardners and surrounding homeowners.  "We haven't found anything of concern," says Pascarella.

Napoleon is not reassured. "I'm concerned about the benzene component," she says. "It's certainly not normal for benzene to be in the soil."

And she worries that the property will be left in a "blighted" condition. Keswick is "a pretty upscale area," says Napoleon, "so it's out of character to have a dump."

Nor is she confident about the county's ability to oversee the cleanup, given its 30-year history with the Gardners. She calls Albemarle to task for its blunder in assuming the dump was grandfathered and then allowing the junkyard to grow over the years, despite complaints from neighbors and a 1984 tire fire after such a complaint. 

Building and zoning services manager Amelia McCulley acknowledges that the county erred in allowing the accumulation of debris to continue "many, many years" and by mistakenly treating the junkyard as pre-existing before zoning regulations went into effect in 1969.

"Under my watch, after the fire in 2005," says McCulley, "I made the decision it was a violation and it was not grandfathered."

The county performs monthly inspections on the cleanup and emails progress reports. The December 6 report notes that the property owners stated that three truckloads of debris, two trailers of wood, and over 2,500 tons of metal had been removed.

McCulley thinks it's premature to fret about what will happen if the property isn't cleaned up by the deadline, and she quotes from the county's monthly progress report: 

"Because the deadline has not past yet, it is too early to know whether it will be met or not. We will conduct an on-site inspection within the first week of 2008 to determine if the site is in compliance. If it is determined that the site is not in compliance, staff will initiate an action plan to obtain compliance. The nature of the action plan will be dependent on the findings of the on-site inspection. If the site is in compliance no further actions will be necessary."

Property owner Doris Gardner declines to offer any predictions about whether her land will get cleaned up by the county's deadline. "No comment," says Gardner. "If you put another thing in the paper, we are suing."