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Future Walmart site declared free of methane gas emissions

When Haggen Food & Pharmacy sought to build a supermarket on the site of a former rock quarry near Sexton Mountain, Elise Smith was among area neighbors who made the development process a bit difficult for the store at 9055 S.W. Murray Blvd.

Concerned about the potential for methane gas emitting from material — mostly rock, wood and construction debris used to fill in the old Cobb’s Quarry — Smith and her neighbors petitioned the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to ensure safety of the 38-acre site. In addition to the store property, which Walmart is preparing for a Neighborhood Market grocery store, development today also encompasses about 50 single-family homes and 30 town homes.

“We were concerned about how the site would be monitored,” said Smith, a Telluride Terrace resident since 1996. “The DEQ had no authority to step in because of the amount of methane at the site.”

The attention influenced how the site was developed: A pipe-and-ventilation system was installed under the parking lot, and the building sits on a specially designed concrete slab. Also, the state Department of Environmental Quality added methane to its list of hazardous substances and regularly monitored the property for harmful gases.

“I think the fact that the DEQ can monitor it, step in and say, ‘You have to meet these requirements around methane,’ benefitted the state,” Smith said.

Despite the victory, the experience soured her on the Haggen store, which she said she avoided during its 2005-2011 run. Smith is pleased, however, with Walmart’s recently announced plans to renovate the vacant building into a scaled-down, grocery-oriented variation of the retail giant’s better-known superstore model. The store, which will be the Beaverton-area’s third Neighborhood Market to open in the past year, is set to open sometime in 2014.

“I’m a southerner,” Smith, a Mississippi native, explained. “I like Walmart.”

Game changer

One thing Smith and other customers likely won’t find at the site is methane, at least at any significant levels. Five years before the Haggen store closed in early 2011, steadily diminishing levels of the organic gas led the DEQ to cease its annual monitoring of the site, said Tom Roick, a senior policy analyst with the DEQ’s Portland office.

“(Cobb’s Quarry) was filled in over time with what we call ‘clean fill:’ soil, rock, asphalt in some cases, sod, brush and other things,” he explained. “When organic materials degrade in an enclosed space, a place where there’s no oxygen present, it generates methane gas.”

In December 2005 and April 2007, environmental consulting firm GeoDesign Inc., of Tigard, found methane “hits” at respective levels of 0.2 and O.3 parts per million at two of the 10 vents incorporated into the parking lot lighting poles. An “action level” to trigger an investigation or remediation plan, requires readings of at least 5 parts per million or higher of methane over a period of time.

“We were doing regular or semi-regular monitoring up until 2007,” said Ken Cameron, a DEQ geologist. “The methane problem just didn’t exist.”

The lack of significant methane hits allowed the DEQ to cease monitoring after January 2008.

When Walmart looked into purchasing the property from Haggen in early 2011, a new report from geo-technical consulting firm Terracon — based on sampling at more than 20 interior and exterior points — found no indication of methane, hydrogen sulfide or other harmful gases.

“There was none inside the building, ever,” Cameron noted.

However, because Walmart’s renovation plans involve cutting into floor — breaching the concrete “cap” that effectively seals the underground fill from the commercial building above — the DEQ will monitor reports from Terracon as the project moves along. As long as the work is properly executed, the agency’s involvement is essentially routine.

“There is a deed restriction on the property,” Cameron said. “If you breach the cap, you have to talk to DEQ.”

The agency doesn’t expect any further methane-related problems with the site as Walmart converts it into a grocery store, Roick said.

“When we first started working on the project, there wasn’t anything in our project rules addressing methane as a hazardous substance. We went through a rulemaking process to include methane and define it as a (potentially) hazardous substance, so we could address this project and other projects in the future,” he said.

Time well spent

Roick credits Sexton Mountain neighbors, including Smith and Susan Cook, with their roles in drawing attention to methane and public environmental safety at Cobb’s Quarry as well as developments at similar sites.

“We want to hear the concerns of residents and people who might be impacted,” he said, regarding development projects that involve pubic environmental concerns. “In this case, those concerns led to an actual rulemaking process in which we identified methane as a hazardous substance.”

Smith credits Cook with bringing the methane issue to her attention in the first place, as well as her husband, Trevor Smith, an engineering professor at Portland State University, with helping interpret the technical reports she and other concerned neighbors poured over. The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission recognized Smith and Cook for their public outreach efforts.

“The EQC invited Sue and I down and gave us certificates of recognition,” she noted.

Beyond the practical concerns, Smith treasures the experience for the way it brought neighbors together.

“Once the DEQ had the tools they needed, what really came out of it was friendships and relationships we made. They listened to us and took our concerns seriously,” she said. “I’m grateful for the time we put into it.”

With a thriving mixed-use development and a new grocery store on the horizon at the old quarry, she feels the neighborhood efforts paid off.

“Obviously, we were successful,” she said. “We realized no one could step in and say you need to build without meeting certain requirements. Now there are homes, town homes, a store and condominiums. In our view, the work accomplished at the site was a success.”

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