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At a courthouse auction in early February, a Pensacola attorney quietly bought seven and a half acres of property near downtown Pensacola’s waterfront for just $8,400.

The only catch? The land is part of an environmentally-contaminated, EPA-designated Superfund site.

Located in the city’s Sanders Beach neighborhood, the 18-acre American Creosote Works site was home for nearly 80 years to a wood treatment plant. There, wooden utility poles were impregnated with preservatives like creosote and later pentachlorophenol, both of which were later found to have carcinogenic properties. Wastewater from the process was dumped into a pair of unlined pits on the site, which then fed untreated into Pensacola Bay via two drainage ditches.

Unable to comply with state and federal environmental regulations, the plant closed in late 1981. By 1983, the property was designated as a Superfund site by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The site’s contaminated soil and groundwater have been under remediation ever since, with approximately $30 million invested into the cleanup so far.

A sign at Pensacola’s former American Creosote Works plant warns against entering the contaminated site. (Derek Cosson/The Pulse)

On the auction block

For at least the past 15 years, the City of Pensacola has been planning to take over ownership of the site once remediation is complete. In 2003, city officials worked with the EPA and neighborhood association to develop a reuse plan for the site, which included development of a park or open space on most of the site. That reuse plan was further updated in 2010.

How and why, then, did almost half of the site end up being auctioned off on the courthouse steps? Benjamin Franklin once said, “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Clearly, he was onto something.

Taxes on the property have gone unpaid for years, with anyone and everyone associated with the owner of record — American Creosote Works Florida, Inc. — having long since vanished. Superfund site or not, those unpaid taxes triggered the auction. City officials tried in vain to convince their county counterparts not to go ahead with the auction, but bureaucracy must be served, and the property was placed on the auction list.

An aerial overview of Pensacola’s ACW Superfund site, with Ralls’ February purchase outlined in red. (Special to The Pulse)

Enter John Ralls

The buyer was Dr. John G. Ralls, 56, a retired podiatrist who now works as an attorney. Licensed to practice law in three states and the District of Columbia, Ralls specializes in the oil and gas industry.

With my background as an attorney and a petroleum geologist, I have a solid understanding of the issues at hand,” Ralls said in an email. “I’ve dealt with contaminated sites over the years and my experiences have given me a good working knowledge in the field of environmental toxicology.  It’s a challenge to work with properties like this and I’m an excellent choice for the task at hand.”

Ralls wouldn’t say what, if any plans he has for the property.

I have requested the most recent assessments done by the EPA on the property and also data on their test results,” Ralls said. “Once I review this information, I will know if further independent testing may be required. I use a lab at the University of Houston that does a great job analyzing chemicals such as creosotes. This will give me a better idea of what the property may be suited for in the future.”

If Ralls’ plan is to try to “flip” the property to the city or another buyer for profit, it’s not likely to happen, officials said.

“Mr. Ralls is now the tax deed owner which puts him first in the title chain for the $30 million EPA cleanup,” said Keith Wilkins, Pensacola’s assistant city administrator. “He is also subject to the EPA Superfund Windfall lien, which can take any profits he makes off the property to reimburse the taxpayers for their expense on the federal cleanup.”

Wilkins and EPA project manager Peter Thorpe met with Ralls at the site on April 10.

“Mr. Ralls was given a brief history of the site and its contamination,” said EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young. “The city and Mr. Ralls are making arrangements for a meeting in the near future to discuss how the property could be transferred to the city.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks with residents at the American Creosote Works Superfund site in Pensacola. (Derek Cosson/The Pulse)

Meanwhile, cleanup continues

Ralls’ purchase of the site won’t impede the EPA’s ongoing cleanup activities, officials said, as long as he cooperates with the agency and continues to allow access to the property. In the meantime, restrictions on the site prevent Ralls from erecting any sort of structure on the land.

Last summer, the EPA completed cleanup of a contaminated ditch which runs from the site to Pensacola Bay through the Pensacola Yacht Club’s property. Later this year, officials are scheduled to adopt a “Record of Decision,” the formal document which will finalize the last phase of remediation — the installation of a permanent cap on the site.

Design on the final phase of remediation is expected to be completed by the end of 2018, with work beginning in 2019. EPA officials are holding a public meeting Wednesday evening to discuss the proposed cleanup plan. That meeting begins at 6:00 p.m. at the Sanders Beach-Corinne Jones Community Center, located at 913 South I Street.

Congressman Matt Gaetz has called the timing of the meeting into question, noting that it was announced as he held an event at the site last week to highlight his effort to abolish the EPA. Gaetz has been sharply critical of the agency’s handling of the ACW cleanup, pointing to the three-decades-long remediation effort as evidence of the EPA’s ineffectiveness.

“This site has been on the Superfund list for 34 years and the only thing the EPA has managed to complete on the project is putting up a fence around it,” Gaetz said last week.

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