Northern Liberties residents demand Tower Investments share information about cleaning up environmental contamination at the former Schmidt's Brewery site.
When police arrived at the former Schmidt's Brewery site at Second and Girard in Northern Liberties just after midnight on June 26, 2002, they found contractor Moneer Farhat burying about 100 cubic yards of "sand contaminated with PCBs" 6 feet underground, according to a police report.
Farhat, president of the now-defunct Philadelphia Building Group Inc., told officers he was covering the toxic soil at the construction site "to make it safe" until he had a chance to "notify the state," the police report states.
An inspector from the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) visited the former brewery the following day. He ordered a work stoppage, and slapped the owner of the property, Northern Liberties Development Inc., with seven violations.
According to the June 27, 2002, L&I notice, the agency cited Northern Liberties Development Inc. with allowing "hazardous materials" to run into a city waterway, neglecting to follow federal standards for PCB disposal, failing to provide the city with documentation of environmental remediation plans and violating the city's asbestos control regulations.
Northern Liberties Development Inc. paid a $5,000 fine to settle the violations on June 16, 2003, according to the Municipal Court docket. Northern Liberties Development Inc. is an affiliate of Tower Investments, which is principally owned by Bart Blatstein, who routinely contracted Farhat to work on his sites.
But some Northern Liberties residents contend their concerns about environmental impacts from asbestos and PCBs on the 15-acre former Schmidt's Brewery site are anything but settled.
Neighbors question why Blatstein has yet to comply with a request from the city to submit a public involvement plan (PIP), in accordance with Pennsylvania's Land Recycling law.
The Street administration initially requested the PIP on Sept. 17, 2004, noting "a history of recent violations at the site," and the fact that the remediation work is near a residential area.
"We've been incredibly frustrated in not being able to get information about some of these unknowns," says Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association (NLNA).
Blatstein purchased the former brewery for $1.8 million at a sheriff's auction in January 2000. Over the next two years Blatstein demolished all 26 buildings in the complex, which had existed as a veritable ghost town since the brewery turned off its taps in 1987.
Because this land was contaminated by its previous use, it's eligible for Pennsylvania's voluntary "brownfield" cleanup program, administered by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Tower Investments is not responsible for creating any of the environmental pollution on the property. But as the current owner, the company is responsible for remediating it.
In a remediation notice, Tower Investments told the DEP that soil on the site contains PCBs, PAHs created by exhaust, leaded gasoline and "other organics." The company reported groundwater on the site to be contaminated with chlorinated solvents, leaded gasoline, "fuel oil no. 6" and "other organics."
Over the past two years neighborhood activist Hilary Regan has frequently contacted city officials with concerns about the site of the former Schmidt's Brewery. Regan says she's astounded they haven't done more to compel Tower Investments to turn over documentation of environmental remediation efforts on the property.
"The city has consciously stayed quiet while the neighborhood fights the developer," she contends. "When are we going to get our legal participatory rights?"
The Northern Liberties residents insist their concerns are well-founded.
On April 7 two representatives from the Pennsylvania DEP watershed management division responded to a complaint at the Schmidt's site, and found "inadequate sediment and erosion controls." They also asked Tower Investments to submit "an erosion and sediment control plan" required by DEP because there wasn't one on file, says Deborah Fries, community relations supervisor for DEP's Southeast Region. According to the inspection report, Tower was given seven working days to install silt fencing and "get within compliance," which it did.
Lawyers for the Delaware River Keeper Network are investigating potential contamination of the watershed. "This site is located in a busy residential area with mostly impervious surfaces," notes Carole Hendrick, senior attorney for the nonprofit environmental group. Her group plans to investigate what chemicals, if any, are in water that rolls off the site and into surrounding streets.
Blatstein declined to speak on the record for this article, insisting "there is no story," though Tower Investments did send PW a letter offering its reporter a meeting with an attorney for the company to "confirm" "any facts that it may believe it has regarding the former Schmidt's Brewery site." PW verified the story through its usual fact-checking process. And our reporter made a final call on Monday requesting an on-the-record interview with Tower.
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