Business

Hawkeye Downs was a former dump site for fly ash. Its new owner now must keep watch in building headquarters.

Land that will require environmental remediation is seen at Hawkeye Downs Speedway in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 1,
Land that will require environmental remediation is seen at Hawkeye Downs Speedway in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. An environmental assessment found that fly ash had been applied to a 17-acre area southwest of the speedway, which currently holds hookups for recreational vehicles. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Longtime soil pollutants at Hawkeye Downs Speedway and Expo Center must be dealt with before construction can take place on certain parts of the property, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Hawkeye Downs in late September announced it would sell its 93.98-acre property to CellSite Solutions for $2.6 million.

The Cedar Rapids-based used-telecommunications equipment supplier plans to build a $6.3 million new headquarters on-site and lease its expo halls and racetrack back to the All Iowa Agricultural Association, the current owner said.

Julie Kraft, the association’s president, said the parties anticipate closing on the sale this month. CellSite expects to move from its current 1720 I Ave. NE location to a temporary facility this spring, and build the new headquarters between August and July 2021, backed by $683,000 in city and state tax breaks.

Following recent environmental assessments, CellSite or any future Hawkeye Downs property owner must take precautions if a construction project entails excavating some portions of the site, or if they find new contaminated areas.

DNR involvement

Fly ash — a powdery industrial waste from electric-generating plants some companies historically dumped around Cedar Rapids — appears to be buried underneath approximately 17 acres across the southern portion of the site, extending under part of a southern addition to the exhibit hall and parking area, environmental consulting company Terracon wrote in a November report to Cedar Rapids Bank and Trust, on behalf of CellSite.

Based on those findings, the Iowa DNR must approve a soil management plan before construction can take place that disturbs that ground, said Matt Culp, senior environmental specialist with the department.

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That plan is to include a leaching test to evaluate waste characteristics, which in turn will help determine whether soil disturbed during construction must be sent to a hazardous waste facility or simply buried under clean fill or sent to a landfill, according to DNR documents.

CellSite plans for a 60,000-square-foot new headquarters on the southwest corner of the Hawkeye Downs property, where the company can expand if it needs further outdoor storage space.

CellSite President and CEO Carter Kramer said he was aware of Hawkeye Downs’ environmental issues before CellSite started negotiations to purchase the property.

The new headquarters will not encroach on the fly ash footprint, he said, and though some outdoor storage is expected to overlap, that construction will be strictly aboveground, with no excavation required.

“We can continue to push forward with using space that would be considered to be at risk or contaminated for outdoor storage space because there’s no excavation required, so we wouldn’t be at risk of creating any environmental hazards through that process,” Kramer said.

The Iowa DNR also will require an environmental covenant for the property, documenting areas with fly ash to guide future on-site development and keep the contaminants from being spread, Culp said.

Workers also must stop construction and alert the DNR if they encounter what they believe to be fly ash in areas not delineated during previous assessments, he added.

“What we don’t want to happen ... is for someone to say, ‘Hey, this would be a great spot to put XYZ building,’ go in there, disturb the materials and cast it wider afield than it is in building without disposing of it properly in a landfill,” Culp said.

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Historic dumping

The Hawkeye Downs property was one of several historic fly ash dumping grounds within an approximately 28-square-mile area in southern Cedar Rapids — a status known to racetrack representatives, Kraft said.

“It was not any big secret that nobody knew,” she said. “We’ve been pretty open about that whenever we’ve looked to sell the property.”

In a February 2006 memo, an Iowa DNR environmental specialist wrote that, according to a field office supervisor, Cargill dumped fly ash around much of Cedar Rapids in the 1980s, and Iowa Electric Light & Power, now part of Alliant Energy, was known to do the same.

The primary dumping spots included the areas around Big Bend and Mount Vernon roads and the Hawkeye Downs property, the memo says.

The supervisor “mentioned that the utility companies used to be allowed to dump their fly ash on their property and some misconstrued that to their advantage by dumping on various properties around the area,” the DNR environmental specialist wrote.

“Enforcement was lacking unless there was obvious impact to surface water.”

DNR officials in 2006 took soil samples from 24 locations, albeit only in public right-of-ways, after high arsenic concentrations were found on a few properties where fly ash reportedly was used as fill.

But the agency decided against further investigation at the time, noting a lack of visible fly ash in the area and that only one sample yielded arsenic above an applicable standard.

“We’re dealing with practices that in hindsight ... could’ve been done differently in order to not set up the scenario where, years or decades later, we’re revisiting and having to evaluate with respect to environmental and public health issues at sites like this,” Culp said.

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“We’re on track now these days to catch these sorts of things on the front end rather than having to fix them after the fact.”

More recently, in October, Terracon engineers made eight 20-foot-deep soil borings at Hawkeye Downs. Six of these yielded elevated levels of arsenic, ranging from 3.2 to 41.9 times higher than the permissible state standard.

Those borings later were converted into groundwater monitoring wells, upon which two samples — from the area where the fly ash allegedly was dumped — yielded levels of arsenic 6.4 to 33.4 times higher than the statewide standard.

Kraft said the environmental due diligence is part of a broader cleanup at Hawkeye Downs.

CellSite in December completed a $70,000 project to repair and replace the north expo hall’s roof, Kramer said.

Kraft said the cleanup also so far has included multiple trash pickup weekends, as the entertainment venue prepares for a new era under CellSite’s ownership.

“We’ve got 93 acres, which we’ve owned for 95 years,” she said.

“Imagine if you had a house that had been in your family for 95 years. You’d have stuff you’d have to go through. That’s what we’ve been doing.”

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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