In a small, cramped office at Gerald Moore’s auto repair shop and U-Haul rental service on Evangeline Street, two of the pictures hanging over the barred windows are a physical representation of his dream.
The pictures are artist renderings of the gas station, and then convenience store, that Moore has wanted to build to replace the old building he’s been working out of for the past few decades.
“I’m so tired of this little box,” he said looking around his small office. “I’m ready for a change.”
Instead, for the past 13 years, Moore has been in a tug-of-war with the state Department of Environmental Quality and the company that took responsibility for a spill in the 1970s.
The department states that all testing has been completed and his property has a clean bill of health. But Moore said the banks don’t see it that way, showing a letter from one potential lender that says the bank won’t give a loan on contaminated property.
Moore’s family purchased the property from Texaco in 1990, and in the early 2000s, he started doing business at the location with car repair, U-Haul rentals and storage barn sales.
The problems started in 2003, when the final piece of Moore’s loan application required an environmental assessment of the property because it had briefly been a gas station in the early 1970s run by Texaco.
The report came back with environmental concerns and the case was referred to the Department of Environmental Quality. Shortly thereafter, Texaco, now a part of Chevron, accepted it was the responsible party for the contamination and did surveys as well as soil and water testing. There also was the question of whether the buried fuel tanks were still in the ground because the gas station had closed long before federal and state rules for underground storage tanks were in place.
That started a 13-year journey for Moore, who says he believes part of the delay was seeing that a business in north Baton Rouge was involved.
“If it was over off Bluebonnet or Essen, it wouldn’t go down like that,” Moore said.
Testing was done in 2005, 2007 and 2008, and the company put into a report to the Department of Environmental Quality that anything found on the property was below standards requiring cleanup.
In a statement from Chevron, Manager of Americas Products Lara Sweeney wrote that Chevron, with the state department’s cooperation, did extensive soil and groundwater sampling at the site.
“Those samples determined that the property meets residential standards in accordance with (Department of Environmental Quality) guidelines, meaning protective of human health and the environment,” she wrote.
In addition, three borings into the tank area found no evidence of any remaining underground tanks.
“It’d be very difficult to miss those tanks,” said Gary Fulton, administrator of the Underground Storage Tank and Remediation Division at the department. “The tops of those tanks are just below the concrete, 2 or 3 feet.”
In 2008, the department issued a “no further action” decision on the property. As far as the state agency was concerned, Moore could do whatever he wanted.
“He could put a day care center on it if he wants,” Fulton said.
That was news to Moore, who said he was told after getting the “no further action” letter that he couldn’t move dirt or build anything without approval from the department and has been denied loans from multiple banks because his land is considered “contaminated.”
“If you get it cleaned up, we’d be glad to give you a loan,” Moore said he was told. “I was tired of this old building, and I want to tear it down. They’re holding me up.”
To hear now that the department is saying he can build whatever he wants and his property is fine is good news but different from what he had been hearing, he said.
“If that was the case, I would be moving forward with my project,” Moore said. However, too much has gone on over the years and Moore said he wants Department of Environmental Quality assertion that his property is clean in writing.
“If it’s OK, then tell me it’s OK,” Moore said. “I’m not going to take their word for anything.”
Instead, Moore filed a lawsuit against Chevron and the state agency in 2009 to get the property cleaned up.
At one point, Moore was offered a $10,000 settlement, but he refused because the goal was to get his property cleaned up, at which point his attorney said they could no longer represent him.
“I don’t want to get paid. I want to get my project started,” Moore said. And so, the case drags on, with Moore estimating he’s spent about $100,000 trying to get the property cleaned up.
Moore said the Department of Environmental Quality was a responsible party and yet, instead of forcing cleanup, let the company off the hook and left him holding the bag.
“They told me I can’t even do any improvements around here,” Moore said. “It has your hands tied to the point of what do you do next?”
Department officials counter that there’s no cleanup needed and the “no further action” letter they sent, despite saying moving any soil would need to be disposed of properly, which sounds a lot like cleanup, means Moore can do what he wants with the property.
“We’ve never had any bank not accept that,” Fulton added. “We do this all the time.”
He added that if there ever is a question by a bank, all the landowner has to do is have the bank call Fulton and his office for clarification. No bank, he said, has ever called him about Moore’s property.
Although there was no cleanup done at the site, Fulton explained that the difference from the initial environmental report showing problems and the second one showing no need for cleanup has to do with the standard.
The initial comparison is to a set that the department developed to let property owners know at a glance whether they have to do any further investigation. The second report looked at site-specific information and was much more detailed, allowing the company to show there was no contamination of concern on the property, said Christopher Ratcliff, attorney ombudsman with the department.
“You can’t really evaluate risk at a particular site without site specific information,” Ratcliff said.
In the meantime, Moore’s lawsuit is still working its way through the court system and he’s still in his old building.
“They want me to give up,” he said.