Knoxville College’s Environmental Problems Complicate Redevelopment Plans

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Tennessee’s proposal to put Knoxville College on its list of most polluted properties could have broad ramifications for the college’s plans to prolong its life by redeveloping most of its crumbling campus.

The historically black college, founded in 1875, stopped holding classes last year as debt mounted and its buildings were shuttered. In 2014, the federal Environmental Protection Agency conducted an emergency cleanup at the college’s A.K. Stewart Science Building, which had been essentially abandoned while still full of highly-reactive hazardous chemicals.

Searching for income that would allow it to resume taking students, the college inked a deal in January giving Knoxville-based Southeast Commercial exclusive “master developer” rights to the property, says college board chairman James Reese. Southeast owner Gary Smith says he has agreements with two buyers for projects on the campus that could include a charter school, affordable housing, senior housing, and offices.

Knoxville leaders say the fate of the 39-acre campus, whose buildings topped Knox Heritage’s 2016 list of “Fragile 15” properties, is especially important given its proximity to downtown. But Smith and college officials only learned that problems persist in the science building and could affect the whole campus. At a Knoxville Public Works hearing May 27, officials with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation recommended the college become a state Superfund site because the science building’s contamination remains so severe.

The state Superfund program differs from federally-designated Superfunds, which take years to add to the National Priorities List of the most polluted in the country. But properties making the state list still pose a hazard to the public or the environment and must be cleaned up, says Dan Hawkins, who supervises hazardous site cleanups for the Knoxville TDEC region.

Hawkins says the science building deserves to be on the list partly because people continue to be exposed to its contaminants. The state has been unable to keep the building secured from thieves, who continually try to loot it. If vandals lit fires that spread through the building, smoke tainted with chemicals and asbestos could settle over the surrounding residential neighborhood of Mechanicsville. Four fires were intentionally set on the campus in a single weekend this April, although Hawkins knows of none in the science building yet.

Hawkins says TDEC has been checking the building almost weekly for several years. “There have not been adequate attempts to secure it, so we have tried ourselves,” he says, but people seem to find ways to break in every few weeks. He says now they’re coming through the roof.

A Superfund designation would likely include the entire campus and could limit how the land can be reused in the future, he says. Environmental regulators typically include the whole property so that if the government ends up paying for cleanup, it can put a lien on the land and try to recoup the costs before a sale.

Deed records show there are already close to $500,000 in liens on the property, the majority being federal tax liens. Although the EPA considered placing its own lien for cleanup costs, which topped $400,000, it appears not to have done so.

Smith says he has buyers for much of the college’s land lined up, and they won’t have to pay for the cleanup—he says he thinks TDEC will have to pay that bill.

Still a Hazard

EPA emergency responders removed chemical containers and cleaned up spills leaking from them, Hawkins says, averting a possible catastrophe to the surrounding neighborhood involving fire or explosions.

“There were considerable quantities of deadly poisons, reactive materials, things that can’t be in contact with water in a building that was leaking like a sieve,” Hawkins recounts.

But surfaces throughout the science building remain coated throughout with “very, very high” levels of mercury, he says, and in the past EPA measured high amounts of mercury in the air. Breathing intense mercury vapor can cause respiratory distress and the fumes affect brain function, but Hawkins says state regulators haven’t tested airborne mercury levels in the building yet.

Hawkins says the EPA found no evidence of a specific spill as the mercury source.

“It could be as simple has somebody dropped a flask of mercury in that building 10 or 20 years ago, it eventually got spread over the entire building,” he says. “Mercury is weird stuff.”

Hawkins says the building also has other chemical contamination and (like all of the college’s buildings) it is full of asbestos.

The chemical-related problems may not be confined to the science building, he says.

“One of the issues we are concerned about is it appears records for chemical disposal (from the science building) have a lot of gaps in them,” he says. “We know chemical labs will generate waste. Some went down the drain, but not this much. We don’t know where it went.” That leaves the possibility that it might have been dumped or buried somewhere else on the property, which is the sort of surprise TDEC officials have seen at other Superfund sites.

Even the chemicals that went down drains could contribute to broader contamination, because they corrode pipes and could have escaped into the soil beneath the building. (Hawkins adds that tests also showed high mercury levels in its sinks.) In that case, disturbing dirt during redevelopment could expose contamination. And some types of chemicals, such as organic solvents, can seep into the soil but then “off-gas” to the surface again, poisoning the air in buildings above, he noted.

In some cases, Superfund sites can only be cleaned up to the point of being reusable for limited purposes, like industrial or commercial use, but not for residences or schools.

Hawkins says air and soil testing is needed before the state could determine if that will be an issue at Knoxville College, but at the very least, “it would definitely add another element to an already extremely complicated situation.”

The Superfund designation would also trigger research into potential responsible parties besides Knoxville College itself. The state could order these to help pay for cleanup. “We have been able to collect from the science building lots of information which indicates to us there are other parties that may have had a large role in management of the property,” Hawkins says. Chemical manufacturers can also be held legally responsible for failed disposal under certain circumstances, he says.

The first step, though, is a hearing July 7. Then the decision about Superfund listing will be made by the state Solid Waste Disposal Board.

Redevelopment Redux

The condition of the science building came to public attention again after the city issued emergency repair orders on the Knoxville College buildings and then held a hearing to declare them unsafe for human occupation, Hawkins came to explain TDEC’s Superfund proposal.

At that hearing, the city finalized the orders for all buildings except the science building and two others, the chapel and library, where the college’s remaining operations staff still works. It postponed deciding about those for 60 days. David Brace, Knoxville public works director, says the delay gives the city time to consult its attorneys about how to proceed with the science building, and gives college officials time to deal with the unsafe conditions in the chapel and library. Nevertheless, a sign on the library, which has a noticeable jagged crack running down one exterior brick wall, still indicated last week that it was “unfit for human habitation.”

“We really feel that we wouldn’t be having people working in the building if it wasn’t habitable,” Reese says.

The fate of the library is key to the college’s plans, because it’s envisioned as the place where classes could first be resumed on campus. Reese says the college still wants to offer classes again this fall, although probably online.

“Every time you think you’re getting started, there’s one more trip wire,” he says.

Smith says he plans to work with the college to develop a plan in the next 60 days for dealing with the science building. He says he hasn’t worked directly with Superfund properties before, but is familiar with the process and thinks it’s manageable.

Smith’s firm had been courting Knoxville College for a redevelopment deal since at least the winter of 2015. But when its initial master developer proposal was leaked, the college faced some public criticism for making decisions behind closed doors.

Its board voted to create an advisory committee of local development and real estate professionals to take a broader look at options for the campus, Reese said at the time. The Mercury has repeatedly requested a list of the people on the advisory committee from board vice-chair Leonard Adams, who was in charge of the process. He never responded.

Reese said last week he said he doesn’t know if the advisory group was ever created, but a board subcommittee did solicit proposals from 14 groups and received two, he says.

“Southeast Commercial wanted to cooperate with us,” Reese says. “The other[’s attitude] was, ‘Turn it over to us, and we’ll tell you what we’ll do with it.’ We feel that whatever it is, it’s going to be a cooperative venture.” He declined to name the firm that offered the alternative proposal.

Southeast Commercial has developed or redeveloped high-profile hotels and commercial ventures in Knoxville, including the Hilton, the Marriott, the downtown YMCA, Dunhill Apartments, the Knoxville Expo Center on Clinton Highway, and National College.

Reese and Smith did not share details of the agreement, but Reese says it doesn’t involve any payments to the college and overall it is similar to what was proposed last spring. That would have given Southeast Commercial exclusive development rights for a year. Under that proposal, the firm could negotiate leases or sales, public incentives and financing, and agreements among the college and its creditors.

Reese says Southeast Commercial is supposed to offer a detailed redevelopment plan to the college’s board in 90 to 180 days. Many aspects, such as the acreage involved and whether the land would be leased or sold, remain under negotiation. Reese says he would like to see the college retain the 13 acres that include the oldest buildings that are part of the Knoxville College National Historic District.

Reese said the current hazardous condition of the science building, which was a surprise, is “very troubling” to the college’s recovery efforts and its budding relationship with Southeast Commercial.

“One or both of us will be greatly affected if the science building contamination is as urgent or extensive as what they say it is,” Reese says.

A meeting soliciting public comment on the proposal to list Knoxville College as a state Superfund site will be held July 7 at 6 p.m. at Knoxville TDEC headquarters at 3711 Middlebrook Pike. TDEC officials seeking information about past activities at the A.K. Stewart Science Building would like to speak to anyone who worked there in any capacity about what they remember about its operations. Attend the meeting or call Dan Hawkins at TDEC at 865-594-5445 or email

NEWS_0609_KnoxvilleCollege2Tricia Bateman

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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