The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Friday, 25 February 2022 16:14

After cleanup, what’s the future of the South Knoxville Superfund site?

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IMG 9550The Montgomery Village public housing complex in South Knoxville is separated only by railroad tracks from the Smoky Mountain Smelters Superfund site (and the Witherspoon dump site).  S. Heather Duncan/Hellbender Press

A better use of the SMS/Witherspoon properties in Vestal may be constrained by toxic legacy and uncertain ownership

An imminent cleanup of a Superfund site in Vestal could pave the way for redevelopment and new life for the highly polluted property. But its future is complicated by muddy ownership and contradictory visions for its use.

The Smoky Mountain Smelters company left behind soil, groundwater and surface water pollution when it shuttered in 1994. But federal infrastructure funding is now slated to finish off a cleanup begun by the federal Environmental Agency at the Maryville Pike tract. Groundwater contamination below the surface is the most significant remaining problem. 

“We’d like to see this redeveloped and put back into productive use, especially since it’s right next to low-income housing,” said Rusty Kestle, Environmental Protection Agency project manager for the 13-acre site. It’s neighbor to the Montgomery Village public housing complex, which is home to about 500 residents, a community center and a Boys and Girls Club.

There are some limitations on its future prospects. Kestle said people shouldn’t live on top of some of the waste that will remain buried there beneath a cap. He said other uses that don’t break the cap or disturb ground monitoring wells would be fine. Those activities could include commercial, industrial, or mixed development, as well as neighborhood uses such as a park or community center.

All those possibilities are off the table until the cleanup. The EPA’s 2015 fact sheet on the status of Smoky Mountain Smelters stated: “The excess cancer risks for future on-site workers and lifetime residents exceed EPA’s generally accepted risk range.” The majority of that risk is based on potentially drinking surface or groundwater containing dangerous levels of arsenic or chromium — a circumstance that seems unlikely in a neighborhood with access to city water. But the report added, “Potential non-cancer hazards are possible for future on-site workers, future adult residents, and future child residents.” These warnings reflect conditions at the site today, before further cleanup.

Community desires

EPA approached Maryville College in 2017 for help learning what local residents would like to see at the former smelter. Associate sociology professor Andrew Gunnoe and senior student Anna Peterson created a remediation proposal based on feedback from online surveys and public meetings held at the South Knoxville Community Center. 

The resulting report identified two main camps: business owners and government officials who strongly favored commercial or industrial reuse, and residents and advocacy groups who favored using the space for multiple community purposes. 

Residents’ suggestions included keeping the space green and connecting it with nearby I.C. King Park, or locating a transit hub or police substation there. A popular idea involved using the property for a multi-purpose community space that could host some combination of classes, a public library, recreation activities, a childcare center and a weekend farmers market. 

Some residents suggested uses that would address Vestal’s struggle as a “food desert” by opening a grocery store or a community garden. (Others distrusted the safety of growing food on a polluted site).  

The ideas that emerged through this College/Underserved Community Partnership Program are intended as a form of community brainstorming but aren’t binding, Kestle said. 

“Local leaders usually want industrial because they want to put it back on the tax rolls,” Kestle said. “But I don’t think it would be a good idea to put another industry there after spending all the money cleaning it up.” He said EPA is hoping the land will be reused in a way that benefits the community, calling it an environmental justice issue.

Other redevelopment factors

Factors besides residual pollution limit the property’s potential. For example, it’s bordered by active railroad lines owned by Norfolk-Southern and CSX Transportation. Some neighbors expressed concern that a passive park or some types of businesses there might attract more drug-related crime.

Kestle said private developers have expressed interest in bundling the Smoky Mountain Smelters site with a neighboring former dump.

That scrap metal operation owned by David Witherspoon had accepted radioactive scrap from the Oak Ridge Reservation decades earlier. Removing the contaminated soil and debris to a Department of Energy landfill (on the DOE’s tab) took from about 2005 to 2009. 

Cleanups don’t always mean problems are over. The cap covering the remaining waste buried on the Witherspoon property was recently damaged by trespassers, who toppled trees and made a road cut across the landfill, said Kim Schofinski, deputy communications director for the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation (TDEC). They also parked large earth-moving equipment on the property and dumped “what appears to be waste material that may not have originated on the site,” she added. Schofinski said the owner is working with TDEC to repair the damage. 

These kinds of experiences with the legacy of industry have left neighbors wary. During the Maryville College study, many residents expressed concern that local officials would bypass their preference in favor of more industrial development, literally auctioning the site to the highest bidder. 

That’s exactly what could happen. Both the Smoky Mountain Smelters and Witherspoon properties have such long-overdue tax bills that they were listed for upcoming tax sale. If that proceeds, Smokey Mountain Smelters could be auctioned on the courthouse steps later this year. 

According to the Knox County Trustee’s office, in February the tax bill for the Smoky Mountain Smelters site (under the name of Daniel Johnson, the deceased former owner) totaled almost $18,900. City and county tax records indicate David Witherspoon and his companies owe more than $39,000 in back property taxes. 

However, according to the Knox County Trustee’s Office, the Witherspoon property with the biggest tax bill was removed from the county tax sale at the direction of EPA and the Knox County attorney’s office. 

The murky ownership of Smoky Mountain Smelters means that any new owner or redeveloper would probably acquire it through this kind of tax sale, Kestle said. 

“Anybody who wants to buy it can, but it’s at their own risk,” he said. He recommends interested parties work with EPA through its Bona Fide Prospective Purchaser Program, which clarifies eligible types of reuse and protects buyers from liability for past contamination. In contrast, he said the Rimmer Brothers recycling center property next door to Smoky Mountain Smelters was just purchased without any communication with EPA, even though it is contaminated by the neighboring Superfund site.

If any property, including Smoky Mountain Smelters, receives no bids at a tax auction, the county would take ownership – and presumably, liability. 

That won’t happen, said Myers Morton, Knox County deputy law director. “Knox County is never going to own that thing,” he said. “Never. That would be the last thing we want.” He said the county will have Smoky Mountain Smelters removed from the tax sale unless EPA officials say it’s completely cleaned up.

But if a local government doesn’t take ownership, final decisions about its reuse will likely be made by a private company regardless of community suggestions. Gunnoe said of the community study, “The ideas all sounded nice in the abstract, but it was really hard to see how they’d become feasible. All these desired solutions require someone who wants to do the investment.”

One potential investor that appealed to Gunnoe and Kestle was Joe Hultquist, a former Knoxville City Councilman who in 2018 floated the idea of running light rail between World’s Fair Park and McGhee Tyson airport with a stop at the Smoky Mountain Smelters property. EPA officials and Gunnoe said easy access to rapid public transit would benefit residents living in a part of the city where topography makes it hard to even run buses. 

However, the project would have required the cooperation of Norfolk Southern, which owns the railroad tracks, as well as some new state legislation. Neither have come together since.

“There’s no real movement on that right now,” said Hultquist in late February. He’s CEO of the Transit Alliance of East Tennessee. “It would be nice if something like that would happen someday. We are still looking at other locations in other cities or states in the Southeast.”

So it remains unclear what’s next for the Smoky Mountain Smelters land after the Superfund cleanup. The Maryville College remediation proposal warned, “Failing to involve this community would prove to be a catastrophic mistake and would almost certainly increase feelings of hopelessness in citizens of Vestal. 

“Providing an avenue of collective expression in this community should not be downplayed, and I strongly recommend that more research be done,” Peterson wrote.

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