Is Tropicana Field site too contaminated?

05/30/08 Seán Kinane and Kamala Chetty
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Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has given the city of St. Petersburg until July to put a deed restriction on the Tropicana Field site. Some people have concerns about whether that means that the site could not be redeveloped as hoped by the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team as part of their plan to have the city and county build them a new waterfront stadium.

The DEP’s most recent letter, dated May 8, gives the city a 60-day deadline to execute a “deed restriction for remaining contaminated soils on the site.”

Karl Nurse, the newest member of the St. Petersburg City Council, said he heard about the DEP letters a week ago.

"The letters appear to me to be pretty straightforward," Nurse said. "The DEP says we have to put a deed restriction on the area that has contamination issues. … I know some people have said it’s voluntary, but that’s not the way the letter reads.”

Before Tropicana Field was built, the site was contaminated by industrial use, including a coal gasification plant. The city cleaned it up enough for a baseball stadium parking lot, Nurse said. "In this case, we were OK in terms of using it where you have a parking lot over top of the area where they think there’s a problem."

But the proposed redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site involves converting what is now the parking lot into different types of development including retail and residential, Nurse said.

Jim Dickson is an attorney partner with Ruden McClosky. He is also an adjunct professor at the Stetson University College of Law, where he teaches a course on Environmental Regulation of Real Property. Dickson said there is not enough information in the two DEP letters to tell what the city and DEP had agreed to in their consent decree. It is common, Dickson said, for a regulatory agency to say a property does not need to be cleaned up further if a cap, like a parking lot, has been put over the contaminated property.

DEP spokesperson Pamala Vazquez told WMNF that their waste cleanup staff members were not available for comment. The letters were addressed to the city’s Engineering Department and were copied to Engineering Director Tom Gibson. Gibson said a deed restriction “wouldn’t prevent future development of the property,” and the city was considering whether to respond to the DEP within the 60-day deadline.

WMNF attempted to speak with Mike Connors, the city’s internal services administrator, but he was not in the office on Friday. Earlier this week, Connors told the St. Petersburg Times, “We’re not interested in pursuing something that appears to be voluntary on our part,” in reference to the DEP’s request for a deed restriction on the Tropicana Field site.

Jeff Danner, vice chair of the St. Petersburg City Council, said the city’s legal staff told him the reason the DEP wants a deed restriction is so a future landowner would know about the site’s contamination. WMNF asked Danner how the letters from the DEP might affect the Rays’ proposal. “I don’t think it will,” Danner said.

St. Petersburg City Council Member Herb Polson said city staff did not tell the Council about the letters from the DEP.

Nurse said he assumes city residents would have to pay additional costs for clean up of the Tropicana Field site. Additional environmental monitoring wells are needed at the site, Nurse said, because “banks will not finance sale of land until they have a clean environmental audit.”

Neil Allen is a steering committee member of Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront (POWW), a group opposed to the construction of the new baseball stadium. He said the west side of the Tropicana Field site has never been tested for contamination. Neil agrees that if the proposed sale to developers is completed, city residents will most likely get stuck with the bill for cleanup.

The Rays have requested that the city put a referendum on November’s ballot to allow a new stadium to be built on the waterfront site of Al Lang Field. In their meeting on Thursday, the St. Petersburg City Council will vote whether to move forward with that referendum process and vote on a Memorandum of Understanding for the potential redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site.

Photo of Al Lang Field by Seán Kinane/WMNF

2007 letter from DEP to the City of St. Petersburg

2008 letter from DEP to the City of St. Petersburg

DEP instructions regarding deed restrictions – “Institutional Controls Procedures Guidance”

City of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg City Council

June 5, 2008 St. Pete City Council meeting agenda

Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront – POWW

Tampa Bay Rays stadium and redevelopment proposal

Previous WMNF coverage of environmental contamination at Tropicana Field

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