Des Moines would own Dico Superfund site, help pay for cleanup, under pact

The city of Des Moines would gain ownership of the Dico Superfund site and participate in its cleanup under a proposed consent decree. (Drone photo courtesy of city of Des Moines)

The city of Des Moines would own the Dico Superfund site on the south edge of downtown and assume responsibility for cleanup under an agreement to be considered by the City Council on Monday. 

The proposed consent decree in U.S. District Court is among the city, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Dico Inc., Titan Tire Corp. and Titan International.

Should the council approve the agreement Monday, it will be sent on to the court, which could take several months to review it, Assistant City Manager Pam Cooksey said. 

The city probably won’t take possession until spring, Cooksey said. The site at one time was a wheel and brake plant, and later a chemical warehousing and production facility. It has extensive water and soil pollution.

Scott Sanders is city manager of Des Moines. (Photo courtesy city of Des Moines)

City Manager Scott Sanders said the city would spend about $500,000 to remove a couple of buildings on the site, using tax receipts from the area. The city is expected to spend about $250,000 a year to “operate, maintain and secure” the property. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to remove the most-contaminated buildings and it will replace decades-old equipment that removed pollutants from groundwater. The money will come from an $11.5 million payment expected from Dico and Titan Tire.

Sanders said plans for the site remain uncertain beyond the initial cleanup. He said the city is protected against further financial liabilities, but also must limit digging on the site due extensive groundwater and soil contamination. He would not rule out public use of the site, but said the initial work over the next year or two will focus on clearing the buildings and securing the property.

Sanders said it is a relief to have the matter resolved after so many city officials, including former City Manager Eric Anderson, worked hard to resolve the case.

“We are just really excited about getting this project and being able to move forward after spending literally decades working on this with staff that have since retired,” Sanders said. “Our goal first and foremost is to remove the blight that is there now and the remediation of any environmental concerns. This really improves the aesthetics of an area that is a very important entryway into the southern part of our downtown.”

The 43-acre site is next to Hubbell Realty Co.’s new Gray’s Station residential and commercial development, and near other apartments and businesses in a growing area.

Titan agreed to donate the land to the city and pay EPA $11.5 million, plus interest, as part of a previous court decision. The land is assessed for $297,000 in its current condition. 

The current owners praised the proposed agreement.

“Titan International, Titan Tire Corporation, and Dico share the desire of federal, state, and local government officials to see the Dico site returned to productive use, while also resolving once and for all more than two decades of litigation relating to the property,” Titan President and CEO Paul Reitz said in a statement. “As a major employer in the Des Moines Metro area, Titan Tire Corp. is particularly glad to be part of an agreement that, if approved, will give the city the opportunity to move forward with redevelopment.”

The city announced plans in 2017 to build a police station on the site, but Sanders didn’t directly answer a question about whether that plan is still under consideration.

Des Moines schools had considered building a sports stadium there, but has since shifted to a joint plan with Drake University for a facility near the Knapp Center and other university sports facilities. Previously, a private developer had floated the idea of an amphitheater at the site, but concerns about the pollution have always brought questions over what EPA will allow on the site. 

A new amphitheater was built at nearby Des Moines Water Works Park.

The consent decree doesn’t specifically lay out how the land will be used, but notes that “certain residential uses” will be banned and overall use will be limited by the contamination on the site. The city would be responsible for maintaining the asphalt cap on the site and would leave the slabs from the buildings in place to cover contaminated soil. 

EPA would have to approve any use of the property.

“Protecting human health and restoring contaminated sites to productive reuse are at the heart of the Superfund program,” EPA Region 7 Administrator Jim Gulliford said in a statement. “This agreement provides for the long-term protection of Des Moines’ drinking water supply, and provides an opportunity for the city to develop the property into a community asset.”

The city hired consultants to assess the site, and used that work to estimate costs. Sanders said the city’s liability is unlikely to go beyond the current estimates. 

The site has been on EPA’s Superfund list since 1983. Titan Tire Corp., run by 1996 GOP presidential candidate Morry Taylor, bought the property in 1993.

Taylor over the years downplayed the risks of the chemicals. His companies piled up tens of millions of dollars of judgments in cases brought by EPA over nearly 25 years and didn’t pay them. 

In 2017, U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt ordered Titan Tire and Dico Inc. to pay EPA $11 million for selling buildings to avoid the cleanup. Last year, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision. 

That same year, EPA declared the Dico site one of 21 nationally in line for “immediate and intense action” as part of President Trump’s goal to open the most lucrative sites for development. 

In addition to degreasers from the wheel and brake operations, the site included solvent, pesticide and herbicide storage and distribution from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s. 

Dico’s operations released the solvent TCE and other toxic chemicals into the groundwater, and EPA supervised a stripping tower to remove the pollutants for decades. EPA issued that order in July 1986.

The site is not far from the main treatment plant for Des Moines Water Works, which serves 500,000 customers, and the Raccoon River, a drinking water source and popular waterway for kayakers.

The Dico Superfund site on the southwest edge of Des Moines’ downtown area. (Map courtesy of city of Des Moines)