Northampton, Columbia Gas settle cleanup at Round House lot; city drops lawsuit, Columbia on hook for future environmental issues

Last modified: Tuesday, July 15, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The city and Columbia Gas of Massachusetts have settled a lawsuit surrounding the environmental cleanup of the Round House lot downtown, a significant deal that protects the city from future liability and may smooth the way for redevelopment of the prominent site.

The agreement covers cleanup of the Round House lot and several other nearby properties, including the Hampton Avenue and Old South Street lots.

“These are important city properties, both now and in the future,” Mayor David J. Narkewicz said. “It’s a significant agreement. We’re very happy about it.”

Columbia Gas, formerly known as Bay State Gas, spent $6.4 million to clean up the city-owned Round House parking lot in 2007 in preparation for development of a hotel that never happened. At the time, the company removed thousands of tons of coal tar-contaminated soil down to 3 feet from the parking lot and from its accompanying Roundhouse building, but some contamination remains at deeper levels.

Narkewicz said the cleaning program was never officially “closed” by the state Department of Environmental Protection, and many unanswered questions remained about whether the gas company or the city would be responsible for additional environmental costs that may arise.

The site is a former home of Northampton Gas Works, which operated a manufactured gas plant from 1851 to 1951. The hazardous material was discovered in 2001.

Last year, the city filed suit against Columbia Gas in Hampshire Superior Court to preserve its rights for potential damages against future cleanup costs. Narkewicz said the city had no intention to take on the gas company in court, but the suit was necessary because its statute of limitations to sue for damages was set to expire.

Since then the two sides ironed out the agreement announced at Thursday’s City Council meeting.

The deal calls for the city to drop its lawsuit and for the council to give Narkewicz authority to file a series of notices of activity and use limitations, or AULs, with the Hampshire County Registry of Deeds. The documents detail what type of construction can occur on the parcels — parks and residential apartment or condo buildings are OK, but single-family homes are not.

The notices will enable Columbia Gas to move the site from temporary to permanent status with DEP and brings some closure for the company.

The agreement also calls for the company to pay for future cleanup costs related to the old gas plant and perform any response actions as required by the DEP, including any gas plant waste removal costs related to redevelopment of the property.

The gas company also agrees to pay for any additional environmental measures on the parcels or in future buildings that may be required as part of redevelopment.

“My constant message to them was we want to have surety, but to be successful in any future redevelopment, we need to be able to give a developer as much information as we can about the lay of the land,” Narkewicz said.

The mayor said the agreement, when finalized in September, addresses one of two major concerns the Ad-Hoc Roundhouse Lot Development Advisory Committee had while it studied potential redevelopment options for the site.

The other is parking. When it decided to list the property as surplus in 2005, the council attached a stipulation that there be no loss of parking when the site is developed. This requirement poses significant challenges for developers looking at the site and would require expensive parking structures to meet the requirement.

“The committee wants to look at revisiting the parking requirement,” Narkewicz said.

Before that happens, however, the mayor is moving ahead this year with plans to hire a company to complete a comprehensive parking study.

The study will look at the entire parking system in the city, including parking capacity and needs.

Chad Cain can be reached at ccain@gazettenet.com.