Above, the Pickett Road tank farm in Fairfax City. The proposed school bus parking lot would be in the grassy area in the southeast, or lower right, corner of the property, just north of Fair City Mall.

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

The media descended, a huge cleanup was launched, protests were staged, investigations were conducted, Congressional hearings were held, and the EPA began overseeing remediation — which continues to this day. It was called one of the largest underground leaks in the United States in years.

Worse, 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. Texaco, which took responsibility for the spill, bought those houses and its successor, Chevron, remains the largest property owner in Mantua.

The vacant portion of the Pickett Road tank farm in Fairfax City, to be bought and used by the city as a school bus parking lot. The markers on the left denote the location of a large gas pipeline that feeds most of the 30 tanks on the site. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

The neighbors are freaked out, 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 morning, and doing their required daily back-up warning beep tests near a residential neighborhood.

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

Still, this chapter of the “Pickett Road tank farm” saga, circa 2012, continues to unfold. The details are after the jump.

A semi-complicated real estate history, and the 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 construct the parking lot carefully so that wells and pipes and trenches will continue to monitor the plume, City Manager Robert Sisson said.

And City Fire Marshal Andrew Wilson, who is extremely knowledgable 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.


The current school bus parking lot, on the Eleven Oaks site in Fairfax City. The lot is right next to a residential neighborhood. The city wants to move the buses to a lot which is further from homes. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

The city tried and tried to relocate the buses at nearly a dozen different places. Then last year, a buyer for the lot offered the city $8 million. Now the city really wanted to relocate the buses. Last fall, it focused on the grassy, unused slice of the tank farm on its southern edge, behind Lifetime Fitness.

Motiva, the company that ownsthe 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 those 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 stormwater management.

The city was undaunted. Then-mayor Rob Lederer, and soon-to-be Mayor Scott Silverthorne, met with Comstock Homeowners Association leaders in February. The association president, Sam Fisher, said he relayed the news to his association, and 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 another $2.6 million for the costs of carefully building the lot.

Tosti raised the issue of whether the city, and then the county, would assume legal liability for spills or cleanup, that it could be drawn into the EPA consent order and “the financial distress of the remediation could be horrific.”

Sisson and Wilson said that wasn’t true. “The party who spilled is always the responsible party,” Wilson said, and Randy Chapman, overseeing the cleanup for Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, agreed.

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 this week, 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, it will be 600 feet from the buses to the closest Comstock townhouse.

Jane Campbell, another Comstock resident, said homeowners’ groups in Mantua, Pickett’s Reserve and Pine Ridge are joining their petition to the city council, asking them to reverse themselves. Tosti said he would be filing an amendment every week, raising more points of concern.

Fairfax City, meanwhile, is plunging ahead, hoping to use its profits from the Eleven Oaks deal to build the bus lot and be done with it. The neighbors have other hopes.

Here is a video that state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) made outside the tank farm last year calling for better safety regulations on the facility. Those regulations eventually passed and were signed into law.