DNR official: D.M. Superfund site cleanup pact a ‘clear success’

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)

A top Iowa environmental official on Tuesday said the city of Des Moines’ decision to take ownership of a highly visible downtown Superfund site in line for redevelopment ends decades of uncertainty over cleanup. 

Ed Tormey, administrator of the Environmental Services Division of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the Des Moines City Council’s unanimous approval of the pact Monday is a major step in cleaning up the former Dico manufacturing site near Fleur Drive and Martin Luther King Parkway.

“The site has been abandoned for several years and many folks gave up hope that it would ever be redeveloped or reused,” Tormey told the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission Tuesday morning. “But recently Dico and its parent corporation, Titan International, began serious negotiations with the federal government to resolve all liabilities and claims and the city also expressed interest in redeveloping the site.”

Dico and Titan, owners of the 43-acre site, agreed to donate the land to the city and pay $11.5 million plus interest to settle a string of federal cases. Federal environmental officials will use the money to help with the cleanup. 

Des Moines will not be held liable if the companies fail to pay, Des Moines City Manager Scott Sanders said in an interview. 

Tormey said DNR helped with the negotiations and will continue to provide technical assistance. “This is a clear success story for the state of Iowa,” he added. 

The land, contaminated with solvents and pesticides, is a dangerous eyesore along a main gateway to downtown Des Moines. 

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie welcomed the progress. Work could begin in the spring.

“This has been an ever-moving negotiation that has taken a rather long time,” Cownie said.

Des Moines City Councilman Josh Mandelbaum, who is counsel for the nonprofit Environmental Law & Policy Center, told council colleagues the agreement is a big step in a decades-long battle to clean the site. 

“I want to thank the staff for all the work that has been done to get this site cleaned up and get it back to better use for our community,” Mandelbaum said. “This will be good for that whole area south of downtown.”

The Dico site is near multimillion-dollar housing and commercial developments, including Hubbell Realty Co.’s new Gray’s Station development. 

The city had proposed a police station on the site at one point, but Sanders said the ultimate development plans for the land are still undecided.

The U.S. District Court in Des Moines still must approve the agreement, which already has been endorsed by the property owners and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which will help with the cleanup. 

Sanders, who became city manager in 2014, said it took 25 years to come to an agreement.

The city would take possession of the land within six months of court approval. The contaminated buildings will be removed by the city and EPA.

EPA agreed to replace pollution-treating equipment on the site and also plans to remove pollution from a pond on the south side of the property.

“This is a great success for the city,” Sanders said. He noted that 16,000 vehicles pass the fenced off site daily.

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