Fw: SP - The hazard next door, 5/31/09
- http://www.sundaypaper.com/More/Archives/tabid/98/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/4122/The-hazard-next-door.aspxThe hazard next doorAn Atlanta junkyard with a history of environmental violations appears to have friends in high places—including the mayorBy Mark Woolsey, The Sunday Paper - Sunday, May 31, 2009"...such a long-festering problem would never be tolerated in Buckhead, Midtown or other neighborhoods with greater clout and better access to high-dollar lawyers."To hear Monica McAfee tell it, it was one of the more disgusting sights she’d ever come across.
Walking her dogs the evening of Friday, May 8, McAfee approached the small creek running through Perkerson Park in the Capitol View neighborhood south of Downtown. Instead of a burbling, clear-running stream, she found a sickly, neon green-coated waterway from one end of the park to the other.
“It was like something out of a horror show,” says McAfee, a civic activist who heads the neighborhood association in nearby Sylvan Hills. Suspecting pollution, she called 911. An Atlanta Fire Department hazmat team arrived, members of which subsequently called a state Environmental Protection Division hotline.
What happened next is puzzling.
Ted Jackson, a manager and inspector with the EPD, responded that night but did not test the water because “the creek was running clear.” However, the visit didn’t come until after 9 p.m., hours after the original report was submitted by the fire department and under pitch-black conditions.
In the meantime, McAfee’s husband had scooped up a sample. Tested by a private lab, it came back showing traces of antifreeze.
While neighborhood residents say several junkyards operate in the area, they train their primary ire on Perkins Auto Recycling, upstream of the park on Higgins Street, which they say has a long history of pollution and code enforcement violations with state and city officials. They accuse the business of illegal dumping, burning cars and performing auto recycling tasks outside an enclosed building (a violation of a city ordinance).
The EPD has confirmed that Perkins Auto was fined $25,000 in 2005 for unpermitted storm water discharges. Perkins was allowed to set up a payment plan of 50 monthly payments of $500 each. To date, Perkins has made only 17 payments, totaling $8,500. EPD officials say they have filed a request with the state Attorney General’s Office to have Fulton County Superior Court pursue contempt charges against Perkins.
A document dated Jan. 7, 2007, shows the EPD citing Perkins again for “a significant amount of oil and possibly other automotive fluids on the ground in the vicinity of the main processing area” of the property and, again, cited the apparent lack of a storm water permit. Still another case going back to 2003 involving oil in a storm water drain netted Perkins another fine.
Bearing that history in mind, couldn’t there have been pollutants not visibly apparent on May 8 of this year that sampling might have turned up? And didn’t the prior violations argue for some sort of action on Jackson’s part beyond a look at the creek?
“That would be pure speculation on your part,” Jackson responds. He says he is doing a follow-up investigation on the source of the reported pollution, but has not talked to Perkins or other junkyard operators in the area to this point, and rejects the idea of performing a random sampling of the creek to trace the source of the problem, saying “I’m not sure what value it would have.”
For members of the Capitol View Neighborhood Association, it’s but the latest chapter in a series of battles with Perkins, and, to some lesser degree, with other junkyard operators in the impoverished area. Among the weapons in their arsenal: a YouTube video showing fluids being poured on the ground and Perkins employees burning cars.
“They just won’t abide by the laws and ordinances put in place to stop this,” says one neighborhood activist who fears direct identification and potential retaliation. “They have a long history and now code enforcement won’t even come down here. Code enforcement has cited them in the past, and always let them off. And the condition of the property is pretty much the same.”
The activist is particularly concerned about a chain of events going back to 2007: After months of wrangling, the City of Atlanta’s business license review board heard testimony about conditions at Perkins and voted to deny a secondary metals recycling license to the company. Mayor Shirley Franklin reversed the decision and approved the license.
“The mayor reviewed the testimony and the evidence and made the decision to approve the license,” Franklin’s chief of staff, Greg Pridgeon, writes in an e-mail to The Sunday Paper. “Three members of the License Review Board (LRB) voted to recommend denial of the license, one member voted to recommend approval and one member abstained. Under LRB procedures, the mayor is not required to follow the recommendations of the LRB.”
Pridgeon says the city’s law department recommended Franklin approve it.
The decision left neighborhood residents stunned and convinced that Perkins must have powerful friends in the halls of government.
“It’s disgusting that we have to live in filth like this when what they are doing is potentially contaminating our area,” says Kim Garcia, president of the Capitol View Homeowners group. Garcia says she has tried repeatedly to get code enforcement officials to update area residents about the situation, and code enforcement in general, at neighborhood meetings, but no one has ever shown up. She says the Perkins business has been cited by code enforcement in the past, but has always been let off the hook.
Calls to Michael Renshaw, head of the city’s Bureau of Code Compliance, were not returned, but a check of the code compliance Web site shows several violations dating back to 2003, including housing code violations and “junk, trash and debris,” with notices showing all cases subsequently resolved.
Despite what residents describe as “numerous calls” to the bureau on the matter, city records reflect no activity in the Perkins file since 2006. Neighbors say a check of the property last week revealed junk and trash and fluid-leaking transmissions and auto parts strewn about. A visit from The Sunday Paper’s news editor on May 20 revealed the same problems, with oily fluids gleaming in plain view on the ground.
Ironically, the Capitol View activist who prefers not to be named says she recently got an e-mail from the city announcing a new program called “Operation High Five,” under which homeowner groups are being asked to submit the names of the five worst code violations in their area. The city would then presumably bring its legal machinery to bear against the violators.
“I submitted Perkins along with a detailed description of what they were doing and a list of ordinances I thought they were violating to make it easier for them,” the activist says. “That was last month, and to my knowledge they [city inspectors] have not been around.”
To be fair, she says, other junkyards in the area have been cited for such things as leaking underground storage tanks.
Concerned residents label their fight with Perkins a case of environmental injustice, asserting that such a long-festering problem would never be tolerated in Buckhead, Midtown or other neighborhoods with greater clout and better access to high-dollar lawyers.
As for operator Claude Perkins, he hung up on a Sunday Paper reporter after saying “I’m not interested,” in commenting, but he did tell a WSB Channel 2 reporter in a recent brief interview, “I am an environmentalist … this is ludicrous,” when asked about the charges.
Garcia says neighborhood residents are again stirring the pot because “it’s an election year and it’s the only time I feel like people can come out and look at this and make a difference. The EPD knows about it, the Health Department has been made aware, the police know about it. And every time we think something’s going to happen, people look the other way.”
One neighborhood over, McAfee is very concerned about taking her dogs around the Perkerson Park creek in the future. But she’s more concerned about “children who play there all summer long. You can’t keep them out of the water, and it’s just a matter of time before someone gets sick. We don’t want some small child to ingest this stuff and get sick or worse, and then we all look at each other and say ‘how did this happen?’” SP