By Cathy McKitrick
The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with the Standard-Examiner.
A once-bustling block in the heart of central Ogden now sits nearly vacant, awaiting launch of an ambitious redevelopment project.
The proposed Capitol Square development can’t go forward until the city addresses an underground legacy of toxic chemicals from a former dry cleaning business discovered more than two years ago. A plume spreading out from the business contains high levels of PCE and TCE, solvents linked to cancer.
The city has submitted a plan to clean up the chemicals at the former laundry property but is still working on a proposal to address the much larger plume, whose size is still being determined.
It’s been a long time coming.
Background documents for Ogden’s Redevelopment Agency indicate a March 2, 2021, work session regarding purchase of the laundry property where ongoing environmental testing was expected to “be completed within the upcoming weeks.”
But that process still continues more than two years later.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the April 27, 2021, City Council meeting took place on Zoom. City Comptroller Lisa Stout briefly presented on the funds for the laundry parcel purchase, but no mention of the property’s contamination was made at the time and it wasn’t referenced in the meeting agenda. No one spoke up during the public comment period prior to the 6-1 vote to purchase what environmental regulators have labeled the 4-C Laundromat property.
Before Councilman Ben Nadolski cast the lone no vote against the purchase, he voiced concerns about the city’s liability.
“We did discuss the additional environmental findings in our work session,” Nadolski said at that time. “I was just wondering if legal (advisers) could give us their take on the liability and responsibility protections that are in place.”
An April 20, 2021, letter from Kim Shelley, who directs Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality, had been part of the earlier work session discussion, although that meeting’s agenda made no mention of the property or its contamination.
Ogden City Attorney Gary Williams had missed that work session due to other demands. But at the Zoom council meeting when he weighed in on the “environmental findings” that Nadolski brought up, Williams said that the city is “never exonerated from liability. What we’ve done is we’ve tried to reduce our chance of having liability. But there still can be a liability on behalf of the city.”
During that council Zoom session, Councilwoman Angela Choberka said she was grateful the city had some assurances in the DEQ letter and asked if there was a way to quantify the percentage of liability the city still might face.
Williams responded that a letter was coming from DEQ — and then he was told it had been presented in the prior work session.
“To reduce our liability on that, we’re taking the right path,” Williams said.
Also during that Zoom council session, Nadolski explained why he had voted no: “I’m 100 percent supportive of the (redevelopment) project. I just haven’t been comfortable with the environmental contamination elements of this. I’m just not quite comfortable with the answers we got from legal, so it … tilted me to the no vote tonight.”
Reached by phone recently, Nadolski said he remembered not feeling the council had done enough due diligence on the potential environmental issues. And he acknowledged that he couldn’t recall what the public knew and didn’t know about the site’s contamination at the time.
“But the information we had suggested there were concerns we didn’t know enough about — and I wasn’t comfortable taking on that liability for the city,” Nadolski said.
During the RDA meeting that followed the April 27, 2021, council session held on Zoom, Brandon Cooper, Ogden Community and Economic Development director, presented more detail about the Capitol Square project planned for the block, including the four-page letter from state DEQ.
By January 2023, multiple public documents regarding the 4-C Laundromat property were made available on the state DEQ website.
While the agency has no rule requiring it to post documents within a certain time frame, Lincoln Grevengoed, project manager with the Division of Environmental Response and Remediation, said DEQ’s general approach is to “push them out to the interactive map as soon as we reasonably and possibly can.”
Before the toxic plume
Framed by 24th and 25th streets on the north and south, and Quincy Avenue and Monroe Boulevard to the east and west, the block used to draw customers to Wheelwright Lumber Co., Rite Aid drugstore, a thriving grocery that changed hands at least three times, and a former laundromat that provided dry cleaning services from the 1960s until 1987.
A 7-Eleven convenience store still occupies the property’s northwest corner, while the century-old McGregor Apartments anchor the southwest corner. A few old houses remain as well.
But for several years, the city’s Redevelopment Agency has purchased large chunks of the block, with the former Forsey Laundry & Cleaners at 856 25th St. in April 2021 being the most recent.
Known as Meyer’s Norge Village from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, its business name changed to Forsey’s Laundry & Cleaning Village and then to 4-C’s Wash Basin and Four Seasons Laundromat.
Now, more than two years after the city purchased the 4-C Laundromat parcel, environmental engineers are still working to define the size and shape of the toxic plume traveling northwest toward Monroe Boulevard.
(Tim Vandenack| Standard-Examiner. The Capitol Square development site, photographed Thursday April 21, 2022.)
Old town problems
For Ogden City’s Cooper, this is not his first rodeo dealing with contaminated brownfields.
“We went into this with eyes wide open, knowing that whenever you deal with a dry cleaner you have potential risks,” Cooper said during a recent phone interview.
Even so, he expressed optimism that remediation of the 4-C Laundry property could be accomplished soon to allow construction of the Capitol Square development to begin this summer.
Cooper described Ogden as “an old town that’s full of either real or perceived contamination, given our manufacturing and railroad history.”
As such, the city has served in an active redevelopment capacity of various contaminated sites for more than two decades.
“We’ve been undertaking environmental remediation in a deliberate way since 1999,” Cooper said, noting that Ogden was one of the first communities in the country to get a federal grant to assess its potential environmental sites.
Without the city’s involvement, property owners often don’t take that role upon themselves, Cooper added, and then brownfield sites languish and turn into blight that brings potential health hazards.
“The Ogden Stockyards are a great example,” Cooper said of the livestock sales and Swift meatpacking business that operated near the railroad tracks in west Ogden until 1970.
“Developers passed it by for 40 years and it became a burden on the community,” Cooper said. “It wasn’t until the city stepped in and said we’re no longer going to tolerate the potential contamination of our river or being a detriment to health and safety.”
While that transformation cost millions of dollars, Cooper believes “it was a risk worth taking because there was no other feasible option.”
Now, Ogden’s 122-acre Trackline development stands in it stead, with only the 92-year-old Exchange Building left as a token of the former forces that powered the city’s economy through the mid-20th century.
Plotting the plume’s perimeter
From December 2020 to November 2022, crews with Sandy-based Applied Geotechnical Engineering Consultants drilled 41 monitoring wells on and around the 4-C property, sampling soil and groundwater to define the bounds and concentrations of toxic contaminants left behind by the former dry cleaner.
To date, the consultants found either trichloroethylene (TCE) or tetrachloroethylene (PCE) — or both — in concentrations exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant levels in 23 of those wells.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked exposure to these two chlorinated solvents to liver, kidney and bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease and leukemia.
Today, 48 wells dot the landscape, with one drilled outside the project area on the west side of Monroe Boulevard, signifying efforts to locate the plume’s northwestern boundary.
In addition to groundwater and soil sampling, vapor monitoring of the air inside nearby residential buildings is also underway.
In late October 2021, Ogden City applied for the Voluntary Cleanup Program with Utah’s Division of Environmental Response and Remediation, or DERR, later signing a voluntary agreement with the agency.
In a recent phone interview, DERR’s Grevengoed said that Ogden City is now considering two separate remediation action plans — one for the laundry property itself and the other for the larger plume.
“Characterizing the plume obviously would be necessary for taking remedial action,” Grevengoed said.
When a site has been successfully decontaminated under the Voluntary Cleanup Program, the city receives an Enforceable Written Assurance, or EWA, that releases it from liability resulting from the contamination.
The April 20, 2021, DEQ letter had outlined a conditional EWA for Ogden’s 4-C Laundry property and plume.
A page included with the letter described the plume’s size according to Applied Geotech’s sampling up to that point, saying it extended in an 80- to 100-foot swath that headed northwest toward a vacant commercial building at 2454 Monroe Blvd.
When Ogden completes cleanup, the city can receive a certificate of completion from DEQ, finalizing the release from liability.
Cooper confirmed that Ogden filed its first remediation plan with the state late last month for cleanup of the 4-C Laundry parcel. Cleanup of the plume will be addressed in the city’s second remediation plan, which has yet to be submitted due to uncertainty about the plume’s actual bounds.
Cooper believes all the work and costs will be justified when the city obtains its EWA certificate of completion.
“If anyone has any (site-related) issues with contamination … they would have to seek remedy from other potentially responsible parties,” Cooper said. “The city would be indemnified.”
(Denny Montgomery| Standard-Examiner. This undated photo shows the Rite Aid block before buildings were demolished.)
Counting the costs
Since 2015, Ogden’s Redevelopment Agency has spent about $3.7 million acquiring parcels on the former Rite Aid block, including its $445,000 4-C Laundry purchase in April 2021.
And JF Capital has already purchased one property on the block, with contracts in place to purchase the 4-C Laundry parcel and at least one other.
According to Utah’s transparency website, the city has paid Applied Geotech $55,899 so far.
Utah’s DEQ has also billed Ogden $4,510 for assisting the city with its Voluntary Cleanup Program.
While the price tag for actual cleanup has yet to be determined, Cooper said he doesn’t anticipate huge costs — Ogden City will fund removal of approximately 162 cubic yards of soil, while the developer will pay for installation of a vapor barrier as part of the construction process.
“In relation to the plume, there are ways we can restrict access to the groundwater so it remains in place without harming anybody,” Cooper said. “And there are fairly inexpensive ways to clean it up while it’s in the ground.”
Cooper noted that the city tries to avoid using taxpayer dollars in these situations.
“In most cases, it’s been through Business Depot Ogden lease revenue and non-taxpayer sources that we’ve approached the cleanup on sites all across the city,” Cooper said.
In this case, the developer has contracted to purchase the 4-C Laundry parcel for $460,000, and $600,000 in BDO funds was set aside in 2021 for the city’s purchase.
“Those are the funds we’ll be using for the cleanup,” Cooper said.
Nicknamed the Rite Aid block for years because adjacent businesses had already shut down, developer JF Capital now owns most of the properties and hopes to finalize its purchase of the 4-C Laundromat parcel from the city this summer.
An artist’s rendering of the proposed mixed-use Capitol Square shows a varied mix of housing, retail (grocery store, eateries, shops), offices and green space. A midblock, tree-lined promenade will run east to west through the center, extending through the next block (which includes the Oasis Community Garden) and connecting to Lester Park and the main branch of the Weber County Library at 2464 Jefferson Ave.
In the near future, the public should have a chance to weigh in regarding the remedial action plan Ogden recently submitted to the state.
The Voluntary Cleanup Program requires a 30-day public comment period in advance of Utah’s DEQ accepting the plan.
Notice of that 30-day window will be published in the Standard-Examiner.
“If there are any comments, we would work with the city to address them,” said Bill Rees, section manager for DERR’s City Brownfields program.
Once the agency approves the city’s remedial action plan, prescribed cleanup can begin.
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