Nurturing nature

Mild weather moves Flat Branch Park plans ahead; pungent odors permeate air surrounding construction
Wednesday, February 8, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:21 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The occasional smell of oil on Providence Road might be nauseating, but to the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department, it is the smell of progress.

The odor is a side effect of an excavation of contaminated soil on property that will soon become the second phase of Flat Branch Park downtown. The park addition will include an extension of the MKT Trail beneath Locust and Elm streets and will connect with a trail underpass at Stewart and Providence roads. Together, the projects will allow trail users to access downtown without crossing any major streets.

Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood said the city has made more progress than it expected thus far on the Stewart-and-Providence underpass and the Flat Branch cleanup. He predicted all that work would be finished by spring or early summer.

The city pushed ahead in January because of good weather, and most of the base work is finished. Now, crews are waiting for a sewer company to lower the sewer lines on the west end of Providence Road, and the city is taking bids for the concrete flat work, Hood said.

The trail underpasses beneath all four streets “will be a big improvement,” said Steve Saitta, park development superintendent. “It will be safer and more visually scenic.”


For the past couple of weeks, however, Columbia residents have had to endure the smell of oil at times as excavation crews dig up contaminated soil on the future parkland. The Environmental Protection Agency granted the city $200,000 to complete the cleanup, and the Parks Department added $40,000 to the grant.

The contaminated soil dates back to the early 1900s and resulted after the MKT Railroad entered Columbia between Elm and Locust streets. From 1908 to 1968, the site housed several bulk oil operations. At this point, workers have rid the area of 3,500 cubic yards of tainted dirt and have begun refilling the site with clean soil.

The removal of petroleum contamination commonly causes the smell of oil, so the air was monitored to assure the contamination did not exceed safe levels, Saitta said.

“We knew there would be some contamination, but the immediate odor we smelled when we broke through during Phase One told us we didn’t know about all of it,” Hood said.

But the oil smell this time has not been nearly as bad, Hood said.

Construction workers found heavier diesel fuel in the section of the site closest to Elm Street, while they found mostly gasoline in the section near Locust Street.

“These guys said they were certain there was heavier oil there,” Saitta said. “When you hit a deep oil pocket, you’ll smell it.”

The odor should disappear this week as the last of the contaminated soil is removed and taken to the Columbia landfill.

Weather permitting, the cleanup phase should be completed by the end of February, and development of the park should begin in March, Saitta said. The park should be complete by summer 2007.

“It’s going very well,” Saitta said of the cleanup. “We’re very fortunate that we haven’t experienced rain, so we don’t have to deal with mud.”

Crews have installed silt fences around the excavation site to protect Flat Branch from the contamination.

The cleanup will cost slightly more than predicted because more soil than expected is contaminated, but the project should remain within budget.

On Monday, the Columbia City Council authorized the Parks Department to proceed with the second phase and to seek bids for its construction. The project will cost nearly $900,000; a combination of federal grants, private donations and park sales tax revenue will pay for it.

Plans for this phase will more than double the size of Flat Branch Park and include an interactive fountain, playgrounds and a pedestrian bridge across the creek to the Walton Building, which houses the Convention and Visitors Advisory Board and the Chamber of Commerce.

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