By Neil Johnson firstname.lastname@example.org - Jun 3, 2022
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has closed the book on environmental remediation at the former General Motors plant site in Janesville.
In a letter Thursday, the state’s lead environmental regulator granted the main GM plant site’s owner, Commercial Development “case closure” after a nearly two-year remediation process.
It means the DNR is clearing the 115-acre parcel and smaller adjacent properties on West Delavan Drive and South Jackson Street from further investigation and no longer will require removal of 100 years of industrial contamination. Both the DNR and the site’s owner report that contamination continues to exist in the ground on the massive parcel.
That site now has the same level of environmental closure that the DNR earlier granted the former 115-acre JATCO haul-away yard, a former GM plant property to the south of the main plant site. It had less intense industrial use than the main site.
The DNR’s decision, according to the letter, allows Commercial Development to leave in place dozens of acres of concrete foundations from the former auto plant that sprawl across the main GM plant site. It also allows to be left in place piles of crushed asphalt and concrete rubble spread out on site.
The city of Janesville has said it intends to fine Commercial Development over the owner’s failure to remove the concrete and rubble under its commercial demolition and cleanup ordinance.
But the DNR in its decision said it considers the 9-inch-thick former factory foundations that spread across large swaths of the property, plus rubble that Commercial Development has crushed and piled up around the site, a “cap” that covers lingering ground contamination of petroleum, hydrocarbons and chlorine. DNR said reports show those remain in the ground around the former plant.
That existing concrete “cover,” the DNR said in the letter, “was designed to be protective for commercial and industrial land uses.”
In earlier discussions, Commercial Development had asked the DNR and the city if it could keep concrete pads from the old GM factory in place, both as ground cover and as ready-made pads for the development of new industrial buildings on the old plant site. Commercial Development and the city of Janesville earlier had renamed the site “Centennial Park.”
Commercial Development, a St. Louis brownfield redevelopment company, had also earlier publicly offered plans for industrial redevelopment at the site—particularly in areas that are adjacent to its extensive railroad infrastructure. The company said it intended to work with private railroad officials and the city to return the former plant to marketable development land. It said uses could include mixed-use commercial and residential development alongside intermodal, distribution and other light industrial uses.
But attempts by Commercial Development to auction off the entire property in an online sale late in 2021 apparently were unsuccessful.
At that time, the property remained under environmental review by the DNR, and city officials said the property owner’s behavior signaled that Commercial Development intended to “cut and run” without clearing the site to the city’s standards.
Commercial Development spent about two years between 2018 and 2020 clearing and scrapping out millions of square feet of the former GM plant’s main buildings, but the site hasn’t seen any significant activity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
A Gazette investigation in 2017 showed Commercial Development has not always taken an active role in redeveloping properties after it has removed factory buildings and has profited from the sale of scrap metal and equipment from properties it has bought.
Commercial Development, meanwhile, had racked up more than a half million dollars in back taxes, unpaid utilities fees and city of Janesville property reinspection fees.
Officials at Janesville’s building department have said the city intends to continue to fine Commercial Development until the company complies with its rules that require removal of foundations, rubble and other debris from the site.
The DNR in its letter said if Commercial Development sells off the site, the next owner would be required to adhere to ongoing environmental obligations, including obtaining approval from the DNR to disturb or remove any of the dozens of acres of concrete “cap” on the ground.
It’s not clear if the DNR will require the site owner to cover the cap with soil and grass, although the city of Janesville’s demolition ordinance requires such cover for cleared industrial land.
City of Janesville Economic Development Director Jimsi Kuborn said she wasn’t prepared to make a statement Friday on the DNR’s decision but said the city will allow Commercial Development to keep old concrete and rubble in place as a cap.
Kuborn said top city staff intend to meet in Janesville with Commercial Development officials Tuesday. She said she intends to proceed as she would with any property owner in the city that has plans for industrial development or redevelopment.
Kuborn said she believes Commercial Development and the city will further discuss the DNR’s closure letter, but as of Friday, she said she had seen “no agenda” for what Commercial Development and the city might talk about.
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