Some city officials are worried the billion-dollar-plus plan to redevelop the American Smelter and Refining Co. site in downtown Murray may be in jeopardy.
As Murray scrambles to complete work on a consent decree that is the key to cleaning up the 141-acre smelter site, the city is trying to navigate through a complicated thicket of last-minute concerns threatening the project:- The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has refused to sign off on the consent decree, drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency, because of language that would exempt parties responsible for the cleanup from future litigation by the state.
- Developers are indicating they may walk away from the project if the smokestack issue isn't resolved soon, and they're also waiting to see if the DEQ-EPA impasse threatens to delay their schedule for getting work under way.
- And one councilman warns that bankers are also worried about the liability posed by the smokestacks and may not agree to finance the project if the stacks are not demolished.
Under a unique arrangement with the EPA, Murray has agreed to be the lead agency in cleaning up the arsenic, lead and other contaminants at the site.
But before cleanup can begin, all involved parties and the federal government must sign off on the consent decree.
Tuesday was the final day for making changes in the decree, and city officials are hoping all local parties to the agreement sign off on the document by April 15.
That would allow the 30-day public comment period to begin on May 1 and, depending on how long the U.S. Department of Justice takes to grant final approval, the cleanup could begin this summer.
Construction of a light-rail mass-transit station, a new medical complex replacing Cottonwood Hospital and commercial development could follow within about 18 months.
Fearful the DEQ-EPA impasse might thwart that plan, Mayor Dan Snarr sent a letter to Gov. Mike Leavitt last Friday asking for a meeting between the governor, the mayor and the City Council.
"We're gravely concerned that the state's refusal to sign off . . . is going to delay the entire consent decree," the letter said.
That delay, city officials fear, might discourage developers, including Intermountain Health Care, and persuade them to abandon their plans for the site.
DEQ spokeswoman Carol Sisco said Tuesday the state agency is firm on its position that language in the EPA's decree is not acceptable.
"It's an issue of states rights," she said. "The EPA wants us to sign an agreement we could never sue anybody over that project, including the responsible parties.
"So if bad decisions were made and something went wrong with the cleanup, we couldn't go back in and make them fix it," she said. "We want to see the project go ahead too. But ultimately, the concern is that the cleanup is done right and everyone is protected.
"Hopefully we can keep negotiating with the EPA and come up with an agreement," Sisco added.
But Snarr said Tuesday he fears the state-EPA dispute could halt the project and place the smelter site back on the Superfund cleanup list unless the city can convince landowners and the developer the project can still move ahead without the state's blessing.
"Similar projects have been done in other states" without the state signing off, he said. "We're still trying to get current landowners and developers comfortable with moving forward without having the state sign off."
Further complicating the issue is the question of whether to preserve or demolish the smokestacks that have become a symbol of Murray's heritage.
While there is some sentiment for preserving the stacks, Councilman John Rush said Tuesday he's convinced developers soon may start walking away from the project if the smokestack issue isn't resolved soon.
"It's not a question of wanting to keep them," said Rush, "it's a question of whether we can afford to keep them."
In talking to his constituents, the councilman said he's only found one willing to spend $2 million to $4 million to refurbish and seismically reinforce the stacks.
"Murray doesn't own the stacks and it's not in a position to stand in the way of a private property owner's rights to tear them down if they want," said Rush. "Some of the parties are not willing to sign the consent decree if we don't bring some closure to the issue.
"I'm concerned developers may start walking away from the project," he said, "and bankers are reluctant to close the financing" if the stacks remain standing.
"I don't know if we can run the risk of losing a project that's so vital to the future of Murray just to keep the stacks," Rush added."
Councilman John Ward agrees the stack issue needs to be resolved soon - just not too soon.
Ward said Wednesday he is certain the cost of preserving the stacks would not be significantly different than demolition, but added that additional study is needed to confirm his belief.
The councilman admitted to feeling sentimental about Murray's most visible landmark.
"The smaller stack is the oldest structure in the city. . . . They're the last remnants of an industry that caused Murray to be formed in the first place," Ward said.
A possible bond vote attached to the primary election in June would allow Murray residents to determine the stacks' future.