Liability Fears Sour Proposed Pine Street Office Project | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Liability Fears Sour Proposed Pine Street Office Project

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BURLINGTON - Apparently, even one of Vermont's most successful real estate developers couldn't beat the 501 blues. That's 501 Pine Street, to be precise.

Ernie Pomerleau, a longtime Burlington developer, said last week that he's withdrawn plans to build a three-story, 75,000 to 80,000-square-foot "green" office building on Pine Street, adjacent to the barge canal federal Superfund site. As Seven Days reported in July ["Pine Street Project Proceeds Despite Barge Canal 'Leak,'" July 5], at least three other developers in the last 10 years have approached the city with proposals for that property, which lies just north of the Burlington Electric Department and across the street from the old Specialty Filaments plant in Burlington's South End. All of those proposals, which included a supermarket and a gas station/convenience store, were withdrawn, primarily due to neighborhood opposition.

Not this time. According to Pomerleau, mainstream news coverage that the Superfund site was leaking contaminants into the barge canal put undue scrutiny on the project, and elevated liability concerns if new problems at the site arose during the construction process. Ironically, 501 Pine Street isn't even part of the Superfund site, and news reports that the site was leaking came a full year after the problem had been discovered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But the damage was already done.

"It put a tremendous spotlight on that whole sector," Pomerleau laments, "and we were the baby that got thrown out with the bathwater."

The property, a former manufactured-gas plant that operated from 1895 to 1966, was listed as a Superfund site in 1983. EPA investigations from 1989 to 1992 revealed extensive coal-tar contamination in the soil, canal sediment and adjacent wetlands. In 2003, the EPA capped the contamination. Since then, several "breakouts" of coal tar have been discovered, most recently in the spring of 2005.

Karen Lumino is the EPA's remedial project manager in Boston for the barge canal site. Last week she said that the agency's environmental engineers are still trying to determine why coal tar continues to bubble into the canal despite the environmental controls in place.

The EPA has been collecting data since early spring and will continue to do so through the next few months - provided it's a cold enough winter. If the lake ice doesn't get thick enough to hold the heavy equipment used in the process - about 12 to 14 inches - data collection may be delayed. A new remedy for the leak probably won't be in place before 2008, but Lumino emphasizes that the pollutants are completely contained and aren't spreading into Lake Champlain.

Pomerleau says he hasn't entirely abandoned the idea of building at 501 Pine Street, especially after he's spent "an inordinate amount" of time and money on feasibility studies. He and the property owner are exploring legal "firewalls" that could protect them from potential lawsuits. As Pomerleau puts it, "It's just too important a site, too close to Burlington, to not get developed."

» Read the full list of 2006 news updates.

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