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By Megan Boehnke of the Knoxville News Sentinel
City officials delayed emergency repair orders Friday on three Knoxville College buildings, including a former science laboratory so contaminated by toxic chemicals that state environmental officials have proposed it be declared a Superfund cleanup site.
Even so, college leaders said they still plan to move forward with plans to reopen the shuttered school and redevelop the campus of the city’s only historically black college.
The A.K. Stewart Science Building, the site of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup two years ago, tested positive for high levels of mercury throughout the building, said Stan Hawkins, regional manager for the Division of Remediation at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
“The Stewart Science Building is a very dangerous place,” Hawkins said. “We were over there every couple weeks and secured the building, but it would get broken into and they (vagrants) were taking stuff out of it. A lot of that stuff is probably contaminated with mercury, and they’re taking it out in public.”
The agency has not been able to determine the source of the mercury, “but believes that it is more widespread throughout the building,” according to TDEC records. In 2014, the EPA spent three weeks cleaning up the building after state officials discovered thousands of abandoned and unlabeled hazardous chemicals in the vacant building.
TDEC will hold a hearing July 7 at its Knoxville office to consider the Superfund status. There will be a public comment period and then a second hearing in Nashville before a final determination is made, Hawkins said.
Jane Redmond, head of the school’s on-site management team, said she wasn’t concerned about the environmental issues raised by TDEC.
“They keep it boarded it up, they monitor it,” she said after Friday’s hearing. “You know, it’s their responsibility, as he said. That’s not us; that’s on them.”
Meanwhile, the city’s public works director Tuesday agreed to defer an emergency repair order on the science building for 60 days, along with orders for McMillan Chapel and Alumni Library. The chapel and library are both used as the “administrative hub” for the college, said Redmond.
The city moved forward with orders on the other 14 campus buildings considered at Friday’s hearing, meaning no one will be allowed to occupy those buildings until repairs are completed and approved by city officials. Another three buildings, including the iconic McKee Hall, already have repair orders.
Redmond said the school will use the two months to form a plan with a private developer, Southeast Commercial. That company inked a master development deal with the school in January, said Gary Smith, head of the firm.
Smith said he has two developers interested in the land and envisions a redevelopment district on the site that could include affordable housing, senior housing, office buildings and a charter school.
Smith said he didn’t know that the site had ongoing environmental issues.
“That’s an issue,” he said following the hearing. “I knew the EPA had cleaned it up and spent like $400,000 on it, but I didn’t know it wasn’t finished. They said the whole site, basically, is in the Superfund.”
Under state law, a lien is placed against the entire parcel containing the contaminated building or land for the cost of a cleanup, Hawkins said. The science building is likely not salvageable, and the cost of safely demolishing it could run into the millions, he said.
The college stopped holding classes last spring and had hoped to open again this fall. Instead, Redmond said the administration is pushing to offer online courses until repairs can be made to the campus.
The Tennessee Higher Education Commission voted in April to place the historically black college on “conditional authorization,” essentially suspending the school’s approval to recruit, enroll or educate students. The status remains the same, Julie Woodruff, an attorney for THEC, said Thursday.
About Megan Boehnke
Megan Boehnke covers Knoxville city government for the News Sentinel.
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