Marko Vovk, self-described urban explorer, has been visiting the remains of the City View Center commercial development for about nine years.
He never comes alone.
This $80 million project in Garfield Heights, the first in Ohio to be constructed on a former garbage landfill, is on life support.
Fears – real or imagined - of potentially explosive methane gases doomed the project from the start.
Armed as always with his trusty methane detector, Vovk, a long-time home inspection expert , noticed some bubbling water near a curb on the center's eastern rim.
“I drove by, I saw oozing, stuff coming out of the hill,” Vovk said. “I know what it is and it’s bubbling.”
Indeed, Vovk’s methane meter buzzes as it’s placed by a curb at the bottom edge of a small mound where water was running off from a recent heavy rain.
It’s methane causing the bubbling.
“I care because it’s a garbage dump and there’s ooze coming out of the ground and people are walking by this,” Vovk said.
But is it safe? Or are visitors walking amid danger?
“It’s concerning,” said Mark Koth, a Garfield Heights resident. “It’s a deadly gas. You can die.”
Such fears have all but decimated the development since it first opened in 2006. Walmart bolted by 2008. Other top Big Box stores followed suit or never came at all. Aside from a few businesses to the north of the site off Interstate 480, Giant Eagle is the sole survivor.
Channel 3 News set out to sort the fear from reality as part of its Verify series. The news station contacted the Garfield Heights Fire Department and the Ohio EPA. Both agencies sent their own experts to test the area for methane.
Fire Chief Thomas Nemetz said natural amounts of methane are on the site, but it does not pose a threat. Methane is produced when garbage decomposes. But the levels found at the City View Center development are low and basically undetectable, he said.
“There’s no fear at all. No concerns at all. No concerns of safety and we’ve been monitoring this since 2005 and we’ve never had an issue here,” Nemetz told Channel 3 News.
Nemetz also pointed to a device installed near Giant Eagle that pulls the gas from the ground and safely disperses it into the air. He said the bubbling detected by Vovk is harmless.
“We’re going to find areas where you see a little pocket of methane coming up, especially when it rains. It makes the methane gas migrate,” Nemetz said. “It’ll find any little opening and come up bubbling out of the ground.”
Nemetz said his family has shopped the Giant Eagle for years. Unfortunately, he said public fear continues to harm the development.
“I think that’s what it is. [People] just don’t know,” he said.
The Ohio EPA also sent a crew to the site after seeing video provided by Channel 3 News. The EPA tests also came back negative for harmful levels of methane, according to Dina Pearce, an Ohio EPA spokeswoman.
But what about that bubbling brew?
In a written response, Pearce said: “Meter readings in the storm sewers and ambient air showed no concern with methane gas. After periods of heavy precipitation around landfills, it is not unusual to occasionally see trace amounts of methane gas bubbling up through ponds and pockets of standing water. That appears to be the case here. Gas bubbles [as seen in the video] releasing to and dissipating in the air do not present a public health or safety concern.”
Pearce also provided some background on the EPA’s oversight of the development. That oversight included a lawsuit filed by the EPA over a decade ago that followed a temporary closing when too much methane filled the area. That methane, or what remains, is now at acceptable levels, experts say.
According to Pearce:
- To comply with Ohio EPA orders, in late 2009, City View Center’s court appointed receiver installed and began operating an active gas extraction system. The underground piping system collects and controls methane gas being generated from two closed landfills located alongside and under City View Center.
- The system, running under the parking lot and buildings, is designed to prevent methane gas from migrating into underground utilities and building foundations.
- The underground utilities and building floor monitoring ports are monitored monthly by the receiver’s contractor.
Fire Chief Thomas Nemetz, city of Garfield Heights
Fire Lt. Dave McKee, city of Garfield Heights
Dina Pierce, Ohio EPA
Marko Vovk, licensed inspector