CARBONDALE — Following months of contention and raw discussions of justice, racism and reckoning with the past, city leaders on Tuesday voted to approve a special-use permit that will allow development of a solar energy array on the environmentally contaminated site of a former wood treatment plant to move forward.
By a 5-2 vote — Jane Adams and Carolin Harvey cast the no votes — the city council moved to approve the permit that will allow Brightfields LLC to construct a 20-megawatt solar energy development on 73 acres of the former Koppers site, located on North Marion Street on the city’s northeast side.
The former wood treatment plant, located on property now owned by Beazer East Inc., used a large amount of a chemical called creosote. Creosote is a wood preservative used primarily for utility poles and railroad ties and is created from high-temperature distillation of coal tar. Koppers operated at the site from 1902 to 1991.
Representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency have tried to reassure Carbondale citizens the creosote is being cleaned up and is no longer a risk to the community based on several soil tests conducted on site and in nearby neighborhoods.
At the same time, some local residents have expressed concerns about the possible long-term health effects left in the wake of the plant’s operation and that a new development might stir any lingering chemical contamination.
The city first tabled action on the permit in October 2013, and a subsequent series of town hall meetings revealed mounting tensions among the largely black community that resides on the northeast side, city leaders and representatives of the EPA. On Tuesday, those same tensions boiled over yet again.
The Rev. Sonja Ingebritsen, facilitator for the Carbondale Racial Justice Coalition, accused city leaders of being enticed by the prospect of an annual payout from Brightfields and said the city simply shouldn’t “impose development on a neighborhood that is opposed to it.”
“Carbondale cannot afford to send the message that the exploitation of a poor, black neighborhood is acceptable for the right price,” Ingebritsen said.
Jane Adams recommended another deferral of the vote, which subsequently was shot down by a 6-1 vote. Acting Mayor Don Monty said the the community could continue discussing the issue “for another 50 years” and likely come to no better consensus.
“We were chosen to make a decision, and I think we need to make a decision,” Monty said.
Council members Lance Jack and Corene McDaniel, herself a longtime resident of the northeast side, took aggressive stances against accusations coming from some in the community. Jack said that for years, he’s seen a “whole lot of talking in circles.”
He shot back at the notion that leaders had any sinister agenda, and as others pointed out, the property is zoned for industrial use, and the Brightfields development is not expected to stir up any further contaminants or interfere with any environmental mitigation.
“It’s been framed as the neighborhood against the government,” Jack said, adding that he was personally offended by the charges. “[The public discussion] was always about something other than the project.”
McDaniel rejected the idea that she was supposed to be beholden only to concerned residents of her own neighborhood.
“I was voted by the citizens of Carbondale — not specifically the northeast,” McDaniel said. “I will not be intimidated by anyone to make me change how I feel.”
Monty said a number of factual errors have circulated in the ongoing Brightfields discussion, and he said the city can continue to keep pressure on the EPA to do additional sampling and studies at the site.
Also on Tuesday, the council approved an additional .25-percent increase in the home rule sales tax aimed at compensating for a projected budget shortfall. Adams and Lee Fronabarger voted against it.
The tax will not take effect until July 1 and is expected to generate $860,000 in fiscal year 2016. Half of the funds are slated to go into the city’s general fund, while the other half will be earmarked for special projects.