A Wisconsin-based investment and development company wants to put a warehouse or light industrial operation on part of the former Exide Technologies battery plant property that lies in Laureldale and Muhlenberg Township.
But first it has to address the lead pollution in what would be its section of the property, a strip of warehouse buildings and parking lot along Montrose Avenue.
The Madison company, Phoenix Investors, is listed as the principal office of the Phoenix Redevelopment Reading LLC, which has applied to remediate part of the Exide property.
Phoenix Redevelopment said in its notice to remediate that measures will include capping buildings and pavement. A Phoenix representative could not be reached for comment.
Soil removal might be completed where there is landscaping, the company said in its notice to remediate the property as a Special Industrial Area in the state's land recycling program, sometimes called Act 2.
The process is different than the EPA Superfund cleanup the property has gone through. It has different standards for acceptable levels of cleanup.
According to the state Department of Environmental Resources fact sheet, a property used for industrial development need not be as clean as a residential site. The program also offers liability relief that extends to future owners.
The redeveloper of the site is responsible only for remediating any immediate, direct, or imminent threats to public health or the environment that would prevent the property from being used for the redeveloper’s proposed reuse, the fact sheet reads.
To learn more about the program: https://bit.ly/3gw3Z6p.
Township and borough officials have until May 12 to submit a request to the Phoenix LLC to be involved in the development of the remediation and reuse plans for the site. The municipalities may also ask Phoenix to develop and implement a public involvement plan, which is also called a PIP.
Township and borough representatives could not be reached for comment.
"Having a PIP doesn't change any of the regulations surrounding the remediation process but gives the community clear channels to submit their input along with efforts to make sure they are updated about the site's progress in the Act 2 program," said John Repetz, DEP south-central community relations coordinator, in an email. "If the general public wants to comment or be involved in the remediation process, they should contact their municipality to ask for a PIP. It is up to the owner/consultant to work with the municipalities as to what kind of PIP they want and implement it. In subsequent reports, they have to show that they addressed the municipalities’ issues with the PIP."
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency said it is working with DEP's land recycling program.
"In order for development to go forward, the developer has to ensure that the cleanup of the eastern portion of the site meets our cleanup requirements to protect human health and the environment," said spokesman David Sternberg in an email. "Under PADEP’s One Cleanup program, site owners or operators subject to corrective action cleanups may be able to satisfy federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act obligations and obtain relief from liability under Pennsylvania's Act 2 Program."
Sternberg noted that about half of the property (which is less contaminated) has been submitted under the notice to attempt to remediate under ACT 2.
He said the EPA also has plans to implement a Superfund removal action, and planning is underway to address designated areas of concern (smelter emissions control components) on the site that pose a significant potential threat to human health and the environment.
EPA will also further evaluate other areas of the Exide facility to determine if additional removal actions are warranted.
Sternberg said it will hold a public meeting and distribute fact sheets in the near future to update the community on the status of the site cleanup activities.
The tangled past
Last summer, Berks County commissioners had asked the EPA to hold a public hearing on the proposed cleanup and monitoring of the site, and asked for a new risk assessment in light of recent science and lack of monitoring of children's blood-lead levels in the area.
The existing plan to remediate lead levels at the Exide Technologies facility was so long ago, and so much has changed involving environmental rules that the commissioners said it should be redone.
The county expressed grave concerns that the EPA was proceeding to implement and finalize a cleanup in 2020 that was designed and based on 1990 science.
Since then, the hearing was put on hold as Exide's third bankruptcy proceeded.
The court-approved bankruptcy plan designated $10 million to the Environmental Response Trust for ongoing containment and safety efforts at 16 of Exide's former sites in Pennsylvania and nine other states.
The EPA, which agreed to the trust fund, said in an Oct. 14 filing that the amount would not be enough for a full cleanup.
The EPA had estimated at least $2.5 million of the $10 million trust would come to Berks, but that's less than the most recent estimate of $6.23 million to clean up and monitor the site.
The $6.23 million estimate does not take into account costs associated with the county's call to re-evaluate the site.
Exide's battery facility and its environmental impact on the soil and water in the surrounding area have been under scrutiny by the EPA for many years.
The plant was idled in 2013. An adjacent facility conducted a plastics recycling operation with a small number of employees until September 2020.
Last fall, the facility and several other lead-polluted properties in Berks owned by the bankrupt battery manufacturer were transferred to the environmental trust.
This year, the trust has sold a few Exide properties to developers in Hamburg.
Several former Exide properties in Muhlenberg Township were recently sold to Laureldale-based BAS Investment Group, according to county property records.
The BAS Investment Group paid $300,000 to the trust for several properties near the former battery plant along Spring Valley Road and Isabella Court.
They are not listed as part of the Superfund site.