Contractors this year uncovered contaminated soil at the site of the former Cooper Homes, potentially threatening local officials’ plans to secure money to build a replacement for the public housing complex.
Workers testing the soil at the Cooper site on 15th Street — where a 102-unit housing complex was demolished last year — found polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, the toxic compound that has plagued Anniston for years.
That find, plus other contaminants on the site, has some local officials concerned about the prospect of finding funding to rebuild the housing project. Even housing officials who are confident of future funding say the site will need cleanup.
“It’s not so much the PCB as it is the industrial waste,” said Sonny McMahand, director of the Anniston Housing Authority. “It was built on industrial waste.”
A new approach
For more than a year, McMahand has been trying to guide the city’s housing projects through a round of construction designed to update the city’s aging public housing stock — and maybe kickstart revitalization of western Anniston’s depressed neighborhoods.
Built in 1952, in a segregated Anniston, Cooper Homes was the city’s first public housing project for the city’s black residents. (Glen Addie Homes, a whites-only project at the time, opened a full 12 years earlier.) At the time it opened, Cooper was at the heart of what amounted to Anniston’s black downtown: black-owned businesses shared 15th Street with residences that often lacked indoor plumbing. Cooper was supposed to make modern housing in the neighborhood affordable.
By 2017, businesses had by and large fled the area, and many of the single-family houses in the neighborhood stood empty. The Housing Authority tore down the project in March 2018 with a plan to replace it with less-dense housing, while spreading more public housing residents out to single-family homes nearby.
The Housing Authority also had plans to begin tearing down and replacing other aging projects, such as Barber Terrace, a collection of townhouse-like apartments on Allen Avenue.
To do that work, the housing authority needed financing, including low-income housing tax credits that have to be approved by the Alabama Housing Finance Authority. And to get that approval, the housing authority had to submit environmental testing results for both sites.
‘Explaining to do’
Those tests, conducted sometime before April, yielded surprising results.
“The metals arsenic, manganese and iron were detected at concentrations above their residential RSLs,” wrote specialists from United Consulting, a Leeds-based environmental consulting group, in their study of the site earlier this year. “RSL” is a reference to screening levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The engineers also found Aroclor — a type of PCB, Anniston’s best-known pollutant. Once used in electrical and hydraulic equipment, PCBs were manufactured in Anniston for a half-century before production was banned due to links to cancer and other health problems.
Anniston residents later won a $700 million settlement from Monsanto for residential PCB contamination, and hundreds of residential lots in the city were tested and cleared of contaminated soil.
The presence of any contamination on the site has some city leaders upset. City Councilman Ben Little said he wants to know why the contamination at Cooper is still there after much of the rest of the city was tested and cleaned.
He’s also concerned about the “industrial fill” identified at the site. According to the report, there’s a two-to-three foot layer of “slag and coal-like” materials in the soil at the site, apparently left over from some industrial use.
“Somebody’s got some explaining to do,” Little said. “These people have lived with this for all these years.”
Attempts to reach United Consulting for further comment on the report were unsuccessful Monday and Tuesday.
In an email to The Star, EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris Young indicated that the Cooper site was indeed tested during the PCB cleanup.
“Those investigations required testing in the top one to two feet of soil for PCB and lead contamination,” she wrote. “A small area of Cooper Homes was cleaned up for PCBs in surface soil that exceeded the goal.”
Little is aware there’s another possible reason for the contaminated soil finding.
“I don’t know if this was underneath the houses, but let’s hope that it is,”Little said.
The PCB cleanup effort often involved removal of dirt from entire yards in front of houses,but dirt under buildings typically went untouched. With Cooper’s buildings completely demolished, it’s possible any contamination on the site now was under the foundations of apartment buildings. The consultant’s report states that some of the soil samples come from the footprint of various buildings, while others from the “area” of a building.
Even a hint of connection to contamination, it seems, can be a problem in the hunt for financing help. The Alabama Housing Finance Authority initially rejected a request for tax credits for a rebuild of Anniston’s Barber Terrace housing project. In an April 9 letter, the AHFA told the housing authority that their environmental sampling didn’t “adequately demonstrate there is no PCB or lead contamination at lower depths” of soil on the site.
United Consulting, in a report to AHFA said their testing at Barber “did not show the presence of PCBs above the laboratory reporting limits,” and found “low concentrations of lead” that were below limits set by the state.
The consultants concluded that the site was “suitable for unrestricted residential use.” But the Housing Authority’s application also noted that Barber Terrace was “adjacent” to the Monsanto PCB Superfund site. The apartments are on a hilltop east of Quintard, but are a block from lots where PCB was found.
The Housing Authority appealed the AHFA’s decision to terminate the tax credits, and McMahand says the authority won its appeal. Attempts to reach the AHFA for comment weren’t successful.
If Barber Terrace redevelopment is back on track, the word hasn’t gotten to every resident. A family member of a resident told The Star that residents were shown an architectural drawing of a new Barber Terrace in recent months, then told two weeks ago that the rebuild was canceled.
Officials in Anniston’s city government — which doesn’t own the Housing Authority’s buildings but does sign off on some of its financing proposals — seem to believe the Cooper Homes rebuild is also in jeopardy. In an email to council members earlier this month, City Manager Jay Johnson, citing the environmental findings, said the Cooper project “will not move forward.”
McMahand said the housing authority has yet to submit an application for tax credits for the project and could still move ahead with a rebuild after doing cleanup at Cooper. He said he didn’t know how much cleanup would cost.
“It doesn’t change,” he said. “We’re committed to Cooper.”
City officials said the council and the housing authority plan to hold a joint meeting to discuss the matter later this month.