On deck: Expensive cleanup of WPB spring training site, a former dump

If Major League Baseball’s newest spring training complex rises above an old city landfill in a few years, it wouldn’t be the first baseball stadium ever built on a trash dump.

One of the earliest examples was Comiskey Park in Chicago, where future Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling is said to have made a memorable play one day in 1931: He dug deep to field a grounder and pulled up a rusted coffee kettle.

The Houston Astros and Washington Nationals hope the past stays buried when they open their proposed $135 million complex south of 45th Street in 2017 or ‘18. Just to play it safe, they’re preparing a massive cleanup chore later this year — getting rid of as much trash as possible at the 160-acre site before construction starts.

Although officials believe most of the remaining trash is confined to about a third of the property, clearing the land so it can be used for a two-team spring training complex will be an expensive undertaking — possibly as much as $10 million to clear and sift some 473,000 cubic yards of soil (more than 31,500 dump truck loads), according to preliminary estimates.

Most of the buried waste is made up of domestic yard trash collected by the city from about 1965 to the early 1990s, before the landfill was formally closed in 1997. But test pits dug in December reveal lots of other debris, too — tires, hunks of rusted metal and old furniture dumped over the years in violation of state permits.

The Astros and Nationals will have a better estimate of the cleanup costs later this spring after their engineering firm, URS Corp., finishes an evaluation of the land north of the M-Canal between Haverhill Road and Military Trail.

Team officials, who will pay for the cleanup with public money, have walked the land several times. They also have read environmental reports from other projects planned on the site over the years, proposals that fizzled because of concerns related to the land’s history as an illegal landfill.

“There is no reason for us to believe that there is going to be a problem that is insurmountable,’’ said Giles Kibbe, general counsel for the Astros. “But it will cost a lot of money to get this ready to go.’’

Once it’s ready to go, the site will begin a transformation into what the teams say will be one of the best spring training facilities in Florida or Arizona — 12 practice fields and a main stadium linked by fan-friendly walking paths and a 12-acre city park with a scenic lake.

But today, the land hardly resembles a field of dreams.

Sandy paths wind through high weeds around stands of Australian pines, sabal palm trees and three rolling hills. Scattered along the paths are evidence of what’s under those hills — rubber tire shards, glass soda bottles with labels faded by the sun, a stuffed animal covered in grit.

A 15-foot-deep test pit, dug in December in a mound on the south side of the property where the Nationals will train, looks like an archaeological dig with layers of twisted metal, PVC pipe and plastic poking out from the dirt-walled sides.

No one knows exactly when trash was first dumped on the site. But records indicate the city started depositing yard trash there in 1965 — three years after the Milwaukee (later Atlanta) Braves started holding spring training across town at West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard.

Although it was permitted for yard waste, that didn’t stop the accumulation of other trash.

As early as 1976, the Palm Beach County Health Department cited the city for expired operating permits and noted that “the type of refuse dumped was not limited to yard trash,’’ according to a 1990 consultant’s report.

One dumping area was under water “and has become a quagmire,’’ according to a department inspection, which also noted how “a noxious odor still permeates the air.’’

In 1979, a Florida Department of Environmental Regulation inspection of the landfill noted “poor conditions … including waste in the water, large stockpiles of non-yard trash and the presence of several 55-gallon drums from which a ‘chemical’ odor emanated and around which the grass was dead,’’ according to the 1990 report by the firm Blasland, Bouck & Lee.

The BB&L report was compiled for the Palm Beach County School District, which was considering buying 50 acres on the east side of the site for a regional sports complex across Military Trail from what is now Palm Beach Lakes Community High School.

The firm at the time said the cost to clean up the land could be as high as $7.4 million. After reaching an agreement to buy the 50 acres, the district ultimately rejected the deal because of concerns about environmental damage.

Traces of the chemicals chlorobenzene and dichlorobenzene — which can present health problems if found in water supplies — were discovered on parts of the landfill in 1987. The city cleaned the contamination before 1999 as part of requirements to close the east side of the landfill, according to a 2006 report compiled by Ardaman & Associates.

The landfill operations on the west side of the site formally closed in 1997 — the final year of baseball at West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium, which had been shared since 1969 by the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos.

(The teams briefly considered moving to the 45th Street site but balked because of the cleanup issues and wound up choosing Roger Dean Stadium at Abacoa in Jupiter. The Braves bolted at the last minute for Orlando and were replaced by the St. Louis Cardinals by the time Roger Dean opened in 1998.)

The city spent at least $3 million to clean the eastern 50 acres over two years, recalled Jeff Halverson, a retired city engineer who oversaw the landfill closure.

As part of the cleanup, all of the remaining trash was pushed toward the center of the 160-acre site into three piles ranging in height from 5 to 15 feet. The piles, which take up about a third of the site, were covered with 3 feet of dirt obtained from a lake dug on the site near Haverhill Road.

The 14-acre lake is 35 feet deep. Parts of its east bank would be filled to accommodate the baseball project while the western shore might be incorporated into plans for a city park.

“It’s not like a real polluted site,’’ Halverson said. “(The teams will) just have to scrape those mounds off and do something with what they scrape off.’’

But concerns about the cleanup prompted investors of another potential project on the land to back out in January. Parkside Commons had considered turning the former landfill into a mixed-use development of 652 homes, 54 acres of industrial uses and a 40-acre city park.

During negotiations with the city from October to December, the company “became aware of environmental issues that differed from what we originally understood to be the current condition” of the land,” Reid Hotaling, a Parkside official, said in an email to The Palm Beach Post.

Hotaling would not elaborate on what his statement referred to as “newly discovered issues” that prompted investors to back out.

Palm Beach County is now trying to obtain the land — and then lease it to the teams — through a land swap with the city. The city would get 1.7 acres of prime county-owned land downtown.

But the swap carries risk for the county and teams if the cleanup becomes more complicated than expected.

A city-commissioned report released Wednesday by Miller Legg, an environmental consultant, warned about the possibility of “unearthing unknown contaminants” when heavy equipment starts clearing the trash mounds.

A “very preliminary cost estimate” for the cleanup, prepared for the city in October by Ardaman & Associates, would be at least $6 million. County officials said the land remediation might cost as much as $10 million — which is about a third of the total construction costs ($28 million) to build Roger Dean Stadium in 1997.

“The county might have just gotten a big pig in a poke,” said City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell, who criticized Mayor Jeri Muoio’s handling of the baseball project as she ran unsuccessfully for Muoio’s seat in the March 10 election.

The teams will be responsible for the land remediation costs, which will come out of their mostly public $135 million budget for the complex, said Audrey Wolf, the county’s director of facilities development and operations.

The teams are using $108 million in county hotel tax revenue and $50 million in state money to finance about $96 million in construction. The teams are paying for the remaining costs, roughly $39 million.

The teams also are responsible for covering any cost overruns of the baseball project, Wolf said.

Old landfills have been used for sports facilities, mainly because the land costs are cheaper. Mile High Stadium, home to the NFL’s Denver Broncos from 1960 to 2000, was built over a minor league complex that opened in 1948 on a landfill. The land where Shea Stadium, home to MLB’s New York Mets from 1964 to 2008, was built used to be called Fishhook Murphy’s Dumps in the 1920s.

So, Palm Beach County doesn’t seem too concerned about building a baseball stadium on an old trash dump. And they certainly don’t think infielders for the Astros, Nationals and their opposing teams will ever risk pulling up a chunk of tire or a rusty coffee pot.

“If we thought it was a no-go, we wouldn’t have entered into a contract,’’ Wolf said.

The county has built other projects on former landfills, including Dyer Park, the Park Ridge Golf Course on Lantana Road and the Palm Beach County Fire Rescue training facility on Skees Road near Florida’s Turnpike.

“It’s not like it can’t be done,’’ Wolf said. “Clearly it’s possible to redevelop (old landfills).’’

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