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An ordinance that would have restricted drilling in an east Little Rock neighborhood because of groundwater contamination was pulled from consideration by the city Board of Directors Tuesday but could be brought up again in the future.

Attorneys for several neighborhood residents say that if the city had approved the ordinance, it would have stymied the residents' private negotiations with Timex Corp.

Owners of 40 lots near a site where Timex made watches and clocks from 1947 to 2000 were notified by the company in March that contamination from its former site had leaked through the soil and traveled into groundwater plumes under residential homes.

The off-site contamination covers a 2.5-block residential area between 11th and 12th streets to the north and south, and J.L. Hawkins and Apperson streets to the west and east.

Timex worked out an agreement with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality to clean up the contamination of its former work site a 9-acre city lot owned by the airport.

The agreement required Timex to get an ordinance passed that restricts access to the contaminated deep groundwater on the private properties.

If Timex can't get such an ordinance passed, it will be required to go back to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality for further instruction that may require it to spend more money on actively treating the contaminated groundwater.

Residents in the affected area opposed the ordinance Timex was seeking. City Director at-large Joan Adcock asked Tuesday that the ordinance, which has been deferred twice since January, be pulled from consideration.

She said Timex representatives asked that she do so. This will give the city and residents more time to get questions answered, Adcock said.

City Manager Bruce Moore opposed the ordinance requested by Timex. He said before Tuesday's meeting that he wasn't sure what the city's role should be in the dispute between a private company and residents.

Sam Ledbetter, a partner at the McMath Woods P.A. law firm who is working with the John W. Walker law firm to represent some property owners and residents affected by the Timex contamination, told a group of residents at a community meeting Monday that defeating the city ordinance would allow them to better negotiate.

"What Timex in essence is trying to do is strip you of any ability to negotiate a fair resolution and strip you of any ability to get your property cleaned up," Ledbetter said at the meeting Monday. "The value of your property is impacted by [the chemicals] that are there. The well-drilling ban is simply going to take away your ability to resolve this in a way that compensates you for that impact. It leaves you in the position of weakness."

Timex has a standing offer to purchase the properties affected by the deep groundwater contamination. The company will also pay for a deed restriction against drilling and accessing groundwater for property owners who don't want to sell. To date, the company has either obtained deed restrictions or purchased 12 properties.

Some residents have said the offers are too low. Timex spokesman Jordan Johnson contends the company has offered and continues to offer purchase prices at fair market value.

In an emailed statement, Johnson said Timex remains committed to cleaning up the area and working with property owners and the city to find a solution that protects the environment and the affected residents.

At Monday's east Little Rock community meeting, resident Betty Goodwin spoke loudly and with conviction about the situation in which her neighborhood now finds itself.

"I really don't think we've gotten the respect we need from the [city] board or Timex. People are having the mindset that this is a community of people that see now they can get money. That's not the case. These are homes. My grandfather built the house over on J.L. Hawkins Street. ... That house means a lot to me. Many other people have similar stories. We are a community of people that nobody sees. It's like we're just not here. That hurts more than anything -- the disrespect," she said.

City directors Adcock and Erma Hendrix attended Monday's meeting. Both told the group they would vote against the well-drilling ban requested by Timex.

After Adcock announced Tuesday that she was removing the ordinance from the agenda, Hendrix said she was upset by the move given Monday night's meeting.

"I have a problem with residents attending a meeting in full force, where we had a livid discussion about what's going on. It seems to me that something is going on [behind the scenes.] I think that it just needs to stop. You know sometimes we have to take stuff up in court," she said.

When Adcock told residents she would vote "no" to the ordinance Monday, she said she had only recently come to that conclusion after receiving new information from the residents' attorney.

Ledbetter sent a letter to the mayor and city board last week detailing his clients' opposition to the proposed ordinance.

He noted that Timex's agreement with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality only requires "monitored natural attenuation" of the contaminated residential property if a city ordinance bans well drilling on the property. That form of environmental remediation relies on the natural processes of the earth, and does not include human intervention called active remediation.

"It is clear ... [that Timex] seeks the ordinance to prevent ADEQ from ordering it to engage in costly active remediation," Ledbetter wrote.

"There is no recognizable public interest in the city board passing an ordinance to save Timex remediation cost," he added later.

Johnson didn't respond to those claims when asked to by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

It's unclear if or when a city official will bring the ordinance to ban well drilling on the residents' land back before the board.

Moore said it is his understanding that Timex will continue private negotiations with residents and working with the city on the matter.

Metro on 10/21/2015

Print Headline: LR board drops vote to limit well drilling

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