The Alexander City Board of Education, already months behind schedule, has yet to secure a construction contract for the new Benjamin Russell High School with the lowest bids coming in several millions of dollars above budget.
Now, they're having to explain a known benzene contamination site near the future school, dating to a gasoline spill 13 years ago. Pastor Roderick Williams, whose church owns adjacent property also being monitored for contamination, raised the environmental concern at a school board meeting Tuesday.
Alex City Schools has a permanent easement over the contaminated zone after purchasing the adjacent 69-acre property in February.
The site, on the southern corner of U.S. Highway 280 and State Highway 63, straddles an Exxon gas station owned by Allen Oil Co. which is still dealing with the 56,000-gallon petroleum spill. According to Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) reports, swathes of the surrounding land — through which Alex City Schools intends to build its driveway — are still contaminated with benzene, a cancerous chemical found in gasoline.
"We had geotechnical (surveys), we worked with ADEM, we worked with everyone," Alexander City Schools superintendent Dr. Keith Lankford said after the meeting, adding the affected property "poses no threat to students."
"ADEM gave the advice that the property could not be purchased for residential use, nor for school use, until (the) time the mitigation was complete," he said, but "ADEM gave full authorization for easement."
As for construction of the school — originally scheduled for completion next year — Lankford says that's being put on the table, but by no fault of the gasoline spill.
"You're dealing with such a shortage of materials right now that the prices (are) just going to be exorbitant," he said. "It's not what we need to move forward with right now with such a large project. So we're going to delay the project. Until what time, we have no idea."
The gasoline spill dates to January 2008, when an Allen Oil Co. employee noticed a leak in the gas station's underground storage tank system. Cross-referencing gasoline shipments with sales, owner Tim Allen discovered the tank had already released an estimated 56,600 gallons of gasoline over the course of 16 days and immediately notified ADEM.
Less than 400 meters downhill from the gas station is Sugar Creek, which flows directly into Lake Martin. Given the imminent water threat and the enormity of the spread, ADEM took emergency measures, digging wells and trenches to divert the fuel-tainted water from Sugar Creek, and vacuuming gasoline up from the ground with hoses.
In a 2008 report, ADEM described vapor concentrations in the utility systems beneath the gas station that were "at or approaching explosive levels."
In successfully blocking the spread to Sugar Creek, however, the clean-up had rendered the area now slated for the school driveway a toxic danger zone that, as of this year, still contains soil with chemical concentrations that exceed the EPA threshold.
At the time, the affected property next to the gas station was owned by Alice Cannady. A lawsuit filed that year by the landowner complained that four months later, the family couldn't even enter the property. "In fact, it is doubtful that anyone other than trained environmental specialists will be able to safely enter Plaintiff Cannady's property for many years to come," court documents state (Cannady's son and Allen Oil settled out of court in 2012, and Allen Oil bought the 77-acre property).
That was not the first of such incidents. In 1995, the gas station was still under construction when torrential rain from Hurricane Opal filled the uncovered storage tank pit, tipping the tank over and spilling 1,200 gallons of gasoline inside. In 2004, a customer told the fire department they smelled gasoline inside Allen Food Mart, leading ADEM to discover three fuel filters leaking beneath three of the dispensers.
Both incidents were investigated, corrected and considered resolved, until 2008, when in the process of cleaning up one spill, specialists noted "areas of very dark colored, almost black free product" seeping from the ground. ADEM concluded it was old gasoline from the 1996 spill and reopened the case.
Thirteen years later, both the 1996 and 2008 incidents are still "open," with environmental consultancy PPM coming in every four months to check the water quality of 24 on-site monitoring wells.
The latest sampling in May, according to ADEM's report, found two of those wells continue to yield benzene-contaminated water that exceed even the non-residential area threshold. ADEM is in the process of reviewing an environmental covenant banning residential use of the property in perpetuity.
The actual extent of the contamination, however, is unclear — of those 24 wells, four are buried, damaged or destroyed by logging operations, according to ADEM's report. Meanwhile, most of the piezometers (used for measuring water depth) were damaged accidentally during routine mowing alongside Highway 63 by Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT).
While there are no residential drinking wells in the area — where benzene poses the greatest risk to human health — in a 2018 report, PPM states that for an on-site construction or commercial worker, "exposure to vapor emissions from impacted soil via migration through cracks in a building foundation is possible."
Allen Oil Co. still operates the Exxon gas station and Allen Food Mart, which shares its space with a barbecue restaurant. But the company has since sold 69 of the 77 acres it bought from the Cannadys to the Alexander City Board of Education for the purpose of building a new school. The other eight acres — the contamination zone — where the board intends to pave a driveway off Highway 63 were severed from the parcel, upon discovering they only needed a permanent easement there.
Ironically, the driveway entrances had already been a subject of controversy — parents did not want their kids turning off of the busy 280 — and the Highway 63 entrance was the compromise. Preliminary architectural plans lay out several access points to the high school, but students will be shepherded to the Highway 63 entrance, Lankford assured parents after buying the property in February.
By directing school traffic through there, ALDOT will also have to widen Highway 63, add a turn lane and rebuild the bridge over Sugar Creek.
Meanwhile, the school board faces other obstacles. Nearly five months after projected groundbreaking, Alex City Schools has temporarily given up finding a contractor. The Outlook has learned even the lowest contract bid —unsealed earlier this month — came back over $10 million above the $48 million budgeted out of its capital projects funding.
Alex City Schools is not the only school system grappling with skyrocketing construction costs. But the property it chose, in part for its prominence along 280, has a tough topography on which to build (as evidenced by the three-story-high rocky outcropping, topped with a giant American flag, across the highway). According to ADEM's 2008 report, Allen Food Mart, which sits on a granite outcrop, had to blast the site before building there, and granite boulders scatter the area.
"We did soil samples and we did borings, so (the contractor) will know where rock will be located where we're going to potentially build," Lankford said. "But as far as the amount of blasting, they'll determine that."
As for the contaminated areas, the superintendent reiterated both he and the school board are aware and are unconcerned.
"Anyone who drives over Highway 63, it's the exact same thing you're going to do (driving into the school)," he said. "It's the exact same thing. If you drive over 63, that is the same impact that it would have."