DES MOINES, Iowa — Once a manufacturing hub, the former DICO Inc. property is now a waste land, bordered by Martin Luther King Parkway to the north and the Raccoon River to the south.
It could be one of the highest valued properties in the city of Des Moines. But few developers are willing to touch it because of what they know – and don’t know – about the contamination left behind by DICO.
For nearly 40 years, DICO manufactured wheels and processed herbicides and pesticides on the property.
“I was a press operator,” says Otis Alexander, a former DICO employee.
Alexander worked at the plant in the late 1980’s through the early 1990’s. He didn’t work with any chemicals, but says he heard stories about them from people who did.
“Out the back door on the east side, there was stuff buried there. You heard all kinds of different things.”
Frank Swesey, who inspected Massey Ferguson parts stored in a warehouse on the property, heard similar stories.
“I talked to longtime employees. They volunteered that I should never take any food or drink into that building, and do not work without gloves on. “
Swesey was also told he’d never see a living ant, bug, spider or bird in any of those warehouses.
“And they were correct,” says Swesey. “The only birds I saw were upside down on their backs.”
He quit about four months into the job.
“The place scared me.”
Swesey had reason to be concerned. In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency declared DICO a Superfund site. It’s a designation given to the most polluted and most hazardous sites in the country.
The EPA identified the primary contaminants as Trichloroethane (TCE) and DIchloroethylene (DCE). Both are known toxins and cancer causing agents.
“The rumor still exists that there are chemicals buried in the ground,” says former State Senator, Jack Hatch.
Hatch was in his first term when the toxins started showing up in Des Moines’ drinking water.
“They couldn’t find any industry that would own up to the contamination,” says Hatch. “So, I launched an investigation, had hearings at the state capitol, with the city and the EPA down in Kansas City.”
The EPA identified DICO as the source of the pollutants. But by that time, Titan Tire had purchased the property, making Titan responsible for the clean up.
“Morry Taylor kept denying that it was his responsibility, because he wasn’t the owner of the DICO manufacturing plant,” says Hatch. “But he bought it, thus buying the assets and the liabilities.”
The liabilities, as Hatch calls them, exist to this day.
In the most recent study, the EPA notes “an unacceptable risk to the environmental/ecological receptors.” The study goes on the say, “The EPA is performing additional work to determine if the area could present an unacceptable risk to human health.
Des Moines Water Works is well aware of those risks.
“It’s a carcinogen and a significant concern to us,” says Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Water Works.
Quarterly tests conducted by Water Works still show unacceptable levels of TCE, DCE and other contaminants in the groundwater collected from wells capped off more than 30 years ago.
“Part of that pipe extends under the Raccoon River and the DICO facility. That’s what’s been contaminated over time,” says Stowe. “We’ve isolated that off, literally closed that off, so it won’t create a problem in the rest of our system.”
That’s cost Water Works millions of dollars.
“There are several million dollars worth of facilities we’ve had to isolate off, and we lose several million dollars in income because it’s a raw water source we have to turn away from.”
As a result, Stowe says Water Works has a lien of sorts on the property.
“That property can’t be transferred, in our view, without our approval. We’re going to have to sign off on it.”
Water Works isn’t the only entity with a stake in this land.
Last fall, a federal judge ordered Titan to pay the EPA more than $11 million in fines for failing to clean it up. At last word, Titan planned to appeal that decision.
The city of Des Moines also wants this property cleaned up. City leaders say it’s an eyesore. They want it back on the tax rolls. They’re also considering a plan to build a new Des Moines Police station on the property.
“The site was identified as a very desirable site for that, in the sense that it’s centrally located,” says Josh Mandelbaum, the Des Moines City Councilman who represents the ward in which the property is located. “It has the space to accommodate the needs. So, we’ve identified a much better use for this property.”
Mandelbaum is also an environmental attorney who knows a few things about Superfund sites. He says that if remediated properly, the site will be safe.
“And that’s the point of the Superfund program,” says Mandelbaum.
Last year, the EPA fast tracked the area for clean up. But Mandelbaum says additional studies are needed.
“There are likely hot spots here that would need to be dealt with or assessed.”
That could mean hidden costs.
An environmental engineering consultant hired by the EPA estimates the removal of the buildings alone could cost up to $14 million. A highly contaminated pond on the south side of the property must also be capped or dredged, costing up to $6.5 million.
And then there’s the question of dealing with the groundwater and soil contamination. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the EPA is in the process of re-examining more than 30 years of soil date to determine remediation options and costs.
“The contamination is much more than they thought,” says Hatch. “We’re not talking tens of millions. It could be hundreds of millions to clean up and prepare this site.”
The city disagrees with that estimate, but acknowledges that part of the negotiation process includes determining who will pay for the clean up.
“I think we’re discussing a range of options,” says Mandelbaum. “Whether that includes the city buying the land, land being donated. There are a range of options and we want all those options on the table.”
To complicate matters, many of the people we talked with say Titan management and its previous CEO, Morry Taylor, have been difficult to work with.
“Our interactions with Titan management have often been contentious, to say the least,” says Stowe.
“He’s been dancing around his responsibility for so long saying, ‘He’s going to walk away and leave it for us,’” says Hatch, meaning the Des Moines taxpayers. And city leaders aren’t ruling that out.
“I think everything is subject to negotiation,” say Mandelbaum.
City leaders say that may be the price taxpayers have to pay to revitalize this important piece of property.
“It’s a missed opportunity right now,” says Mandelbaum. “These sites can be a healthy and productive part of our community.”
But people who have a history with the property , have their doubts.
“I was really concerned,” says Swesey when he heard about the possibility of building a new police station on the Superfund site. “They wouldn’t let the homeless people sleep on the ground there, but they’re going to plop our best and brightest down on top of that ground?”
“I think the reality is that nothing will happen,” says Hatch. “This will remain vacant and we will lose an opportunity to develop a signature piece of the city because of corporate greed.”
Titan Tire issued this statement: “The DICO property has been in full environmental compliance for years and is now in an essentially dormant operation and maintenance phase… As a longstanding corporate citizen of the Des Moines community, it is DICO’s sincere desire to see the property repurposed for the highest and best use of both the community and DICO.
DICO has been attempting to work with the various applicable governmental entities to achieve this outcome and will continue to do so going forward until it is realized.”