Location of school bus lot creates a combustible situation

August 18, 2012

The words “Pickett Road tank farm” have a special resonance with folks who have lived in Northern Virginia since the early 1990s. That’s when a massive underground gasoline spill was discovered in the Mantua neighborhood just east of Fairfax City: Hundreds of thousands of gallons of gas had leaked into the ground over a period of many years from the vast petroleum storage field on Pickett Road at Colonial Avenue.

It was called one of the largest underground leaks in the United States in years. The Environmental Protection Agency began overseeing remediation in 1991, which continues to this day. And dozens of homeowners sold their houses in Mantua because of the gas beneath them, which over 22 years has slowly been pumped out or absorbed by the ground.

And now the Fairfax City Council, which once passed a resolution asking the tank farm to go away, is buying 2.2 acres of land on the tank farm to use as a parking lot for school buses.

The neighbors are troubled, for obvious reasons. Renowned environmental disaster site. School buses chugging around in close proximity to fully loaded gasoline tankers. The sound of 50 buses churning to life at 6 a.m. every weekday and doing their required daily backup warning beep tests near a residential neighborhood.

But the City of Fairfax has done its homework and has been searching for years for a place to resettle this bus lot. Experts have assured residents that the site is uncontaminated and never really received much of the underground plume, which extended about 2,000 feet east across Pickett Road and into Fairfax County. City officials think the buses and tankers will have enough space to maneuver. And they believe the neighborhood is far enough away, and screened by trees, that it won’t be affected.

An opportunity to sell the current bus lot for a $4 million profit gave Fairfax City the added urgency to find a new lot now. Neighbors say that shouldn’t matter.

“They’re in a bad position,” said Mark Tosti, a retired lawyer and member of the Comstock Neighborhood Association, who quickly whipped up a detailed 24-page petition opposing the tank farm lot. “But it’s pushing them into taking a cataclysmic position.”

City officials think this is a good, if un­or­tho­dox, site to lay the long search for a bus lot to rest. The city does not assume any legal responsibility for the ongoing cleanup of the gas leak or future spills and will build the parking lot carefully so that wells and pipes and trenches will continue to monitor the plume, City Manager Robert Sisson said.

City Fire Marshal Andrew Wilson, who is extremely knowledgeable about the tank farm’s operations and the two decades of remediation efforts, said, “As far as we know, there’s no contamination” under that area, “and tests show there hasn’t been for years.” Putting a 50-space parking lot there “is going to have no effect on the ongoing remediation,” Wilson said. Officials with the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality confirmed that this part of the site is not contaminated and that the building of a school bus lot is fine by them.

In 2007, Fairfax City spent $4 million to purchase a six-acre lot on its southern boundary. The former Eleven Oaks School lot on School Street was being used to house Fairfax County school buses. As part of the Eleven Oaks deal, the city agreed to continue housing the buses and to find a mutually agreeable site to relocate them if the city ever sold the land.

The city tried and tried to relocate the buses at nearly a dozen different places. Last year, a buyer offered the city $8 million for the lot. With such a large profit possible, last fall it focused on the grassy, unused slice of the tank farm on its southern edge.

Motiva, the company that owns the site (but had nothing to do with the leakage), thought this was a terrible idea. Fairfax City threatened to use its powers of eminent domain to force a sale. Motiva, a joint venture of Shell Oil and Saudi Refining Inc., responded in April with a letter reminding the city that this was a federal cleanup site and “we believe that this location is a poor site for a bus parking lot for many reasons.”

Among the reasons were that “residual or non-mobile product [gasoline] remains in the subsurface,” the letter said. “Re-mobilization of this residual product might occur from a significant weather event, construction activities or a change in hydrogeology due to construction of the bus lot facility.” The letter cited numerous specific monitoring and recovery wells that would need to be preserved, along with the trench, various piping and storm water management.

The city was undaunted. Mayor Rob Lederer and Mayor-elect Scott Silverthorne met with Comstock Homeowners Association leaders in February. The association president, Sam Fisher, said that he relayed the news to his association and that no one in his group raised any complaints.

But when it became clear that the city was going to cut the deal, other Comstock residents leapt into action and testified against it at a July 24 City Council meeting. Their concerns were acknowledged, but the council was ready to roll, and voted to pay $1.25 million for the 2.2 acres, plus allocate $2.6 million for the costs of carefully building the lot — essentially the profits from the Eleven Oaks sale. Tosti pointed to the April letter, which said the bus lot ”will obstruct/interfere with” major portions of the monitoring and remediation.

Sisson, in a letter to residents, said that since the letter was written, “the city has satisfied Motiva’s engineers and specialists” that the cleanup will be uninterrupted.

The homeowners also are concerned about the noise, particularly the buses starting up and testing their backup beepers at 6 a.m.

Sisson said the lot will be 500 feet from the nearest residence and, including a 100-foot turnaround area, the buses will be 600 feet from the Comstock townhouses.

This article is excerpted from The State of Nova blog. For more, go to washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-state
of-nova.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998. In 2011 he launched The State of NoVa blog, a state strictly defined as the boundaries of four counties and one city: Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Alexandria.
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