Gardner Park Playground project moves forward with environmental assessments

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NEWPORT — City officials say they have spent the last nine months navigating the complex permitting process required for an upgrade at the Gardner Park Playground, but the project is moving forward.

As the community prepares for the big playground renovation, structures that have occupied the space since the 1980s were removed this spring due to safety concerns, and to prepare for a new playground and splash pad.

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This is the first major park improvement initiative in decades.

“We recognize the value this project brings to the community and the city is committed to seeing it through,” said City Manager Laura Dolgin.

The site was originally a swampy tract of land later developed using undocumented fill in the 1950s.

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This led to a variety of soil contaminants that surpass health standards set by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation exist.

As a result, the city must explore remediation options before moving forward with construction.

“Given the historic land use, we are not surprised or dissuaded by the findings, and we’re pleased to be working with professionals at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Vermont Dept of Environmental Conservation who are encouraging and mentoring us as we work toward a solution,” Dolgin added.

Dolgin says acknowledging the past and being proactive to eliminate health risks is a responsibility they take seriously.

The fundraising for the project has been successful and is waiting for the go-ahead to begin construction.

The contaminated soil needs to be removed or covered to protect the health of park users.

One alternative being explored is to add a layer of clean soil on top to act as a barrier to protect against exposure except the park is located on a sensitive shoreline in a floodplain area.

Raising the elevation of the park by bringing in another layer of earth could have negative impacts on the flood water capacity.

“The type of contaminants and concentrations detected are indicative of a property that may have been a former landfill and where industrial facilities are located nearby,” Lynda Provencher, from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Waste Management and Prevention Division, who reviewed the findings and compared them to the State’s regulatory standards, said.

She says that while the thresholds are above state standards, their presence is not unexpected given the history of the park and is certainly not uncommon in Vermont and elsewhere.

The next step in the testing process is a Supplemental Phase II Environmental Site Assessment that includes seven soil sites and nine water testing sites around the playground.

A cost estimate includes field testing and proposed remediation recommendations that will be required as part of a Corrective Action Plan for the State of Vermont.

The additional testing represents an unanticipated expense for the playground project.

Irene Nagle, the Senior Planner for Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA), has been working with the city to bring the project forward and identify possible funding sources to help cover the cost of testing.

“This situation is not unique to Newport and comes up frequently when undertaking redevelopment projects on properties that have been used by the public for centuries,” said Nagle. “Thanks to the City’s proactive work assessing environmental conditions and applying for Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Brownfields Assessment Grants with our coalition in the past, Newport is in a good position to secure additional funds from both private and public sources to cover this expense.”

The city has received for funding to cover the next phase of testing through the EPA Brownfields Targeted Assessment Grant and the additional assessment work will be underway this fall.

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