A battle over Georgia mill sparks environmental debate

It’s the type of multimillion-dollar renovation that many towns would celebrate, a remake of a forlorn property within spitting distance of the historic commercial strip, that planners hope will bring new vitality to a sleepy city center.

But here in Greensboro, about 75 miles east of Atlanta, the $12 million redevelopment has ignited a bitter legal battle, raised vexing environmental concerns and sparked a debate over the city’s future. And the loudest critics hope the fight can be a template others can use to threaten redevelopment projects in metro Atlanta and elsewhere.

Two of the town’s most prominent citizens have filed a lawsuit to block the project, known as the Mary-Leila Lofts, over concerns it would send contaminated soil into a nearby stream and the groundwater below.

And a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist they hired to monitor the site warns that a recent spill could have further polluted the area where dozens of low-income residents could soon live. His tests show what he says are above-average levels of toxins like lead and PCBs, a compound banned in the U.S. in 1979.

“I doubt there is any human being alive who can be exposed to this cocktail and not have an adverse health effect. It may not show up today or tomorrow or next month, but it will accumulate,” said David Lewis, who now works for Focus for Health, a nonprofit health advocacy group. “And it will take a toll on the health of whoever is living there.”

The developers point to the more than $1 million they are spending to clean up the buildings on the site, which is expected to house 71 apartments for low-income tenants. Gary Hammond, a partner in the Greensboro Mill development, said leaving the site alone would have worse environmental consequences by allowing the chemicals to remain in the soil.

“There are environmental contaminants,” he said. “But this isn’t going to be a current and long-term health risk to people who choose to make it their home.”

And Mayor Glenn Wright, who has led the town for 14 years, says the opponents are rallying against the project for a less wholesome reason: It is aimed at applicants who earn between $15,000 and $30,000 a year.

“Some people had a luxury development in their mind,” he said, “and when the market fell out and this project replaced it, they couldn’t get over it.”

Lewis and the other critics, though, see a bigger battle at stake. They fear that developers eager to tap into a preservation-minded trend are underestimating the health hazards posed by aging mills and other sites dotted around metro Atlanta.

“If we can stop them here in Greensboro,” he said, “it’s going to have a domino effect across the South.”

The Three Davids

The Mary-Leila Cotton Mill closed in 2005 after more than a century of producing cotton sheets and cordage material, leaving the imposing brick building, its towering smokestack and a rusty water tower. Also left behind are less-desirable remnants: contaminated coal ash from the power generator, lead-based paint and asbestos.

Soon after it closed, developers planned an upscale condo development on the site for retirees who tired of living on nearby Lake Oconee. And the EPA in 2007 awarded the city a $200,000 grant to help assess the environmental risks.

But the Great Recession dashed that vision of fancy lofts near downtown, and developer Nathan McGarity won approval to build housing for low-income residents on the site in 2013 after two years of back and forth with local leaders. The site was sold this year to Atlanta-based developers who vowed to clean it up.

The remediation plan that was approved by Georgia regulators aims to wipe out the asbestos, move some contaminated soil to a nearby landfill and cap another area with a concrete or asphalt blanket. Already, contractors have scraped lead paint off the surface of the water tower by hand.

“We are doing what we should be doing so at the end of the day we’ve properly remediated the environmental issues so that the site is safe,” Hammond said.

A group known around town as the “Three Davids” has said the developers are doing too little to purge the site of toxins. David Kopp, a former city judge who hangs his shingle next to the courthouse, and David King, a retired chemist who owns a 52-acre estate near downtown, have joined Lewis in seeking more cleanup spending from the developers.

Their lawsuit ended with a settlement that allowed Lewis to regularly test the site for toxins over the next three years — and gag orders for Kopp and King. The plaintiffs have also sent appeals to federal environmental regulators, state watchdog groups and Gov. Nathan Deal’s office seeking an intervention.

The debate only sharpened this spring when contractors struck an unmarked pipeline that pumps water to nearby downtown customers. Lewis said “harmful” levels of lead trickled into drinking water and that one monitor found that lead in the soil was 20,000 times higher than federal drinking water standards allow.

“This is a site which has no less than 30 priority pollutants and mixtures. And that’s what hits me more than anything else. We don’t just have a little lead there,” Lewis said. “We’ve got a catalog here of the most toxic chemicals that the EPA regulates. It’s a cocktail.”

The developers said in a statement that the pipeline was repaired quickly and testing concluded that any water released was contained on site. Other samples of lead in the soil, it said, found concentrations “well below state and federal standards.”

Environmental regulators say they are monitoring the development. The EPA said in a May letter that the unusually high level of lead was found in one spot, not near the creek, and will be “addressed by the contractor.” It also said the site was subjected to rigorous testing and warned of a visit by inspectors in the near future.

A spokesman for Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division said the construction is held to the state’s “most stringent cleanup standard” and that regulators are so far “satisfied” with the steps the developers have taken to control erosion and pollution.

‘A very bad start’

The Greensboro project is the latest in a long line of ambitious Georgia proposals to redevelop a blighted factory or mill in an otherwise prime location.

Atlanta’s most famous example is Midtown’s Atlantic Station, the city-within-a-city built atop a derelict century-old steel mill. Engineers scraped off and trucked away 150,000 tons of contaminated soil and capped another section of land before building high-rises atop it.

Environmental engineers are now grappling with a range of other large-scale redevelopment projects on contaminated sites across North Georgia, including the planned transformation of the 162-acre former General Motors factory in Doraville that’s envisioned as a sprawling mixed-use site.

Those projects, like the Greensboro development, dealt with high concentrations of lead and other pollutants in the soil. The mill’s supporters point to the Atlanta examples even as they chalk up the criticism to irreconcilable differences.

“We got off to a very bad start, and no matter what we do, we haven’t been able to satisfy the Davids,” Hammond said. “They’re very concerned about the health and safety of Greensboro’s citizens. And my hat is off to them. But we are doing everything we can to make sure the residents know about the painstaking efforts we’re taking to clean up the property.”

Some residents remain on edge about the fate of the project. Cary Williams, the longtime editor of the Greensboro Herald-Journal, said residents aren’t sure what to expect once it is completed in 2016.

“They’re waiting until the storm hits,” Williams said. “There’s two sides to every story, and the developers have done a good job cleaning up the site. But people are worried that when the money dries up, they’ll be gone.”

Wright, the mayor, said he shares some of the same concerns over the environmental impact of the development, and he said regulators should monitor it closely. But he said the testing is being wielded as a “weapon” by critics who are trying to scare residents. And he said the community’s needs far outweigh the risks.

“There’s a huge need for low-income housing within walking distance of jobs. Low-income people here just can’t afford vehicles to travel downtown,” Wright said. “The long and the short of it is that we have more low-income seniors now, and they don’t have transportation. So they need housing here.”

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Staff writer Daniel Malloy contributed to this article.