WRAL Investigates

Spills at Orange school bus lot delay nearby development

Posted May 12, 2016 5:15 p.m. EDT
Updated May 12, 2016 6:04 p.m. EDT

— Fuel spills at the Orange County Schools bus depot in Hillsborough have delayed plans for a microbrewery and restaurant nearby.

Environmental concerns at the bus depot on U.S. Highway 70 East date to 1990, when a leaky underground fuel storage tank was first detected. Years later, the site was still classified as "high risk," with state regulators noting "very little work has been conducted" to remediate the contamination.

"The site has had a history," Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said recently.

The school district eventually removed the underground tanks, but it wasn't until this past February that DEQ issued a "No Further Action" notice regarding contamination at the site.

While Mark Powers, a regional supervisor with DEQ's Underground Storage Tanks Section, signed off on that notice, there was a new problem: A fuel tank ruptured on an old bus last May.

Orange County Schools initially reported a 60-gallon diesel spill, which is above the 25-gallon threshold that requires mandatory intervention by the state. A week later, an environmental consultant hired by the district downgraded the size of the spill to eight to 10 gallons and promised to get it cleaned up.

"At the end of the day, you have to trust the sources that you are provided with," Kritzer said.

More than two months later, that spill began affecting the project that Ron Spada and Chick Evans planned on 16 acres downhill from the depot. The developers want to transform the property into a seven -building complex that includes a restaurant, a retail shop, a brewery, a distillery and an event center.

The first phase of the project – a restaurant in the former home of a local dentist – was supposed to be done by this spring, but contamination concerns delayed the developers' purchase of the site, according to records in DEQ's file about the May 2015 spill.

Spada and Evans noticed fuel in a creek off school district property, and records show they got no response when they approached district officials about it.

"They seemed to be a bit frustrated," Powers said.

The developers hired an environmental consultant and took photos of the site, including some of a rained-on pile of contaminated dirt from the apparent clean-up of the spill.

"The soil didn't look like it was adequately covered, at least that one day," Powers said of the photos. "If they let it sit for more than 45 days, then they were probably technically in violation."

Spada and Evans then filed complaints with the state and with Hillsborough stormwater program manager Terry Hackett to force the school system to clean up the mess.

Hackett visited the site in August and ordered Orange County Schools officials to clean it up.

"There was evidence of diesel fuel at the surface," he said recently, adding that "it had to be more than" eight to 10 gallons that had been reported spilled.

Yet, he didn't issue a violation notice.

"I looked at it as a situation where it might have dragged on much longer, instead of just getting something cleaned up and fixed," he said. "I was more concerned with the number of other buses that were sitting around and making sure that this didn't happen again."

Powers went to the site on Sept. 22, however, and found "diesel-stained gravel," and the smell of diesel fuel was in the air.

"If that spill was eight gallons, there were probably other spills either before or after it," he said. "To have a diesel odor four months later just doesn't really make sense."

Larry Curcio, an environmental contractor hired by Orange County Schools defended the district's response, saying crews dug up contaminated dirt the day after the May spill. Following the town's orders three months later, he said, the district moved old buses or sold them for scrap and took other steps to clean up the bus depot.

"There wasn't anything willful or deliberate about what happened. I'm not sure why the developer was pushing as hard as he was," Curcio said. "(School district leaders) genuinely want to be good neighbors. They did absolutely everything they could to resolve this."

"It probably could have been dealt with more quickly," DEQ's Kritzer said.

Curcio said the discolored water might have been due to bacteria forming from naturally occurring iron and not a diesel spill. But Hackett disputed that explanation after inspecting the site, stating it was clearly fuel.

Still, Hackett said he doesn't believe the district was negligent in handling contamination at the bus depot.

"I don't believe they tried to hide something. I think they had an issue that they weren't aware of," he said.

Hillsborough officials have since provided extra environmental training to school district staff to reduce the risk of similar situations in the future.

"It is less costly to proactive than it is to be reactive and have to clean up a mess," Hackett said.