‘Tiny home’ village promises refuge for homeless. But the site has a toxic past.

The organization behind the village has assumed responsibility for cleanup costs on the 8.6 acres that it will develop.

Six decades ago, Salt Lake City retired its old Redwood Road Dump, which operated during a time when there were few restrictions on what could be dumped in municipal landfills and records were not kept of what was dumped.

No one really knows what remains buried on site or what may have been illegally dumped there over the years since it closed in 1962. But what is known is groundwater, surface water and soils at the site exhibit alarming concentrations of heavy metals and numerous hazardous substances.

Now parts of the site at 1850 W. Indiana Ave. are slated to be developed into a “tiny home” community, hoped to serve as a model for serving Utah’s homeless population and revitalizing blighted urban landscapes. Yet at one point several years ago, state environmental regulators considered the old dump for inclusion on the Superfund’s national priorities list, according to documents generated by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Some 1.3 million cubic yards of refuse is buried at the site in a layer of material averaging about 12 feet in thickness across the 70-acre property. The landfill is not lined and has undergone no remediation, save the five feet of dirt pushed on top of the trash, according to DEQ documents.

“The Redwood Road Dump presents hazards to those working and living near it, as well as to a number of transients and bottle collectors who have frequented the area in the past and still have access to the site,” states a 1995 report by DEQ’s Division of Environmental Response and Remediation. “Although the site is vegetated and surface runoff is slow, the accumulated refuse, soil, and shallow groundwater contain hazardous substances and these present a threat to human health and the environment.”

Entering this picture is the proposed Other Side Village.

A Utah nonprofit has won the City Council’s blessing to develop this project’s first phase on the least-contaminated part of the 70-acre city-owned property, the southeast corner abutting Indiana Avenue to the south and private property used for storage and a wrecking yard to the east.

As part of the 40-year lease signed with the city for a dollar a year, the organization has assumed responsibility for all cleanup costs on the 8.6 acres that it will develop into a “pilot” project consisting of 85 homes, ranging in size from 280 to 400 square feet.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“We know that there’s been a lot of concern about the site. We agree with the concern and we’ve done everything we can to mitigate the risks and we think it will be a beautiful site where people’s lives can be transformed and healed,” said Tim Stay, founder and CEO of The Other Side Academy (TOSA). “There’s a myth that the whole property is contaminated. We agree that part of the property is contaminated but we’re not touching that part.”

TOSA has earmarked $232,000 toward cleaning up the first 8.6-acre phase of the project, budgeted at $13.8 million.

“We would kill the project if it would be harmful to the residents,” Stay said. “It would make no sense for us to move people from one harmful environment and move them into another harmful environment and have a number of our staff living among them.”

The project enjoys full-throated support from various Salt Lake City officials, including Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who threw it some love in last week’s State of the City address.

“Progress at the site is moving forward, a key environmental study is about to begin, and my administration is ready to move at light speed the second it clears those hurdles,” she said.

City council member Alejandro Puy, whose district includes the site, did not respond to requests for comment sent by email and phone.

Helping TOSA sort this out is the city and its consultant Terracon, which completed a site assessment of the 8.6 acres under Utah’s voluntary cleanup program administered by DEQ. Established in 1997, this program was set up to help property owners remediate “brownfield” sites — vacant land that was once used industrially — for reuse.

DEQ is now reviewing Terracon’s 389-page report to determine whether it adequately characterizes the nature and extent of the contamination. If the answer is yes, the next step is developing a remediation plan that would render the site safe for residential use, according to Bill Rees, who oversees DEQ’s brownfield program. Once complete that plan will be subject to a 30-day public comment period.

“I actually think they’ve selected a pretty decent piece of property,” Rees said. “With the mitigation, I think there’s plenty of opportunity to construct this tiny home village in a manner that benefits the homeless population. But most importantly, it’s done in a safe manner as it relates to any contamination that could be present.”

It’s too early to say what the remediation plan would entail, but he suspects it will require vapor barriers on the structures’ foundations and long-term monitoring, especially if waste is left buried.

“It’s not like somebody’s just saying, ‘Hey, we’re walking away. It’s all good,’” Rees said. “You’re going to have some management of that site, probably in perpetuity.”

If the pilot piece succeeds, TOSA plans to expand the project to nearly 38 acres with 300 to 400 homes, along with community amenities and a grocery store. An entirely new site assessment and remediation plan would have to be developed for that next phase.

This land is on the periphery of the old landfill, which was operated from 1923 to 1962, not on top of it, according to Stay.

“It’s a myth to say we’re building on the landfill because we don’t want to touch that. We agreed it just would have been exorbitant to try to make it applicable for residential use,” he said. “What surprised us was how good the land on the eastern portion of that parcel.”

While the ground itself may prove to be safe, or capable of being made safe, there remain concerns about the village’s immediate proximity to the landfill itself from which groundwater and vapors could migrate. That possibility will factor in DEQ’s decision to issue a certificate of completion, according to Rees.

“We are optimistic that based on the site and remediation opportunities, we’ll be able to get it to that standard,” said Blake Thomas, the city’s director of community and neighborhoods. “We’re being highly cognizant of the history of the site and protecting the future residents there.”

The larger 70-acre site has posed a challenge to city officials for decades. State agencies conducted numerous studies, the earliest dating to 1977 when the Utah Department of Transportation examined the site for its suitability to run Interstate 215 through. For that study, 18 boreholes and four monitoring wells were drilled. At 12 of these holes, petroleum products were found at or near the water table and seven found methane concentrations at an explosive threshold.

For the next 40 years, water and soil samples from these holes were analyzed, revealing the presence of hazardous chemicals used in pesticides and dyes, such as phenanthrene, fluoranthene and pyrene. Also recorded were concentrations of numerous heavy metals--aluminum, arsenic, barium, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, sodium and vanadium--as high as three times background levels, according to DEQ documents.

In the 1950s, the city shifted its waste disposal to other areas and closed the dump in 1962, although crews still dumped leaves, branches and stormwater sludge there. And the site continued to be a magnet for illegal dumping.

“During its years of operation a manifest system was not in place at the landfill and no records remain of waste content or quantities dumped at the site,” states the 1995 report. “In addition, no regulations were in effect to limit possible hazardous waste additions to the landfill.”

The picture got more complicated when the freeway was built right through the property in 1988, dividing the landfill into a “west pile” and an “east pile.” The refuse from the freeway right of way was scraped up and added to the east pile on the side of the freeway now proposed for development.

The heap remains visible today as a sprawling weed-infested mound rising 17 vertical feet from the neighboring ground. Blocks of broken asphalt and concrete can be seen embedded in the dirt.

In 1991, mounds of chromium-tainted dirt appeared, which investigators traced back to a tool manufacturer located hardly a mile away. Under a court order, the company removed 240 tons of its waste, but it is not known what else may have been illegally deposited at the unsecured site over the years.

In the face of these unknowns, The Other Side Academy and the city are both careful to stress they would not select ground for the village if it posed health risks to future residents. If the remediation plan fails to bring the site to DEQ’s standards, the tiny home project will not be built there.

“We have to guarantee that it’s habitable and available for occupation. We wouldn’t want to put anyone at risk,” Thomas said. “I frankly think it’s exciting that this is happening on a city-owned property that’s been vacant for all those years and a private-sector partner is paying for the remediation and that due diligence. It’s housing for a population that needs it, and then also the environmental remediation of a contaminated site.”

Reporter Blake Apgar contributed to this report.

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