The Carver School Memorial Park

Several years ago I was approached by a representative of a large Multinational Oil Corporation with the idea of designing a particularly challenging space in Baytown, TX.

The green pushpin area, enlarged:

I say “challenging” while many other words are certainly applicable, as I’m sure you’ll agree when you read more about the history of this particular area.

A little background: For well over a hundred years Baytown has been the site of vast  petrochemical complexes and refineries. Believe it or not, for many years in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, oil companies stored their crude oil in enormous earthen pits, usually at least 600 x 600 feet, and sometimes covered with shade cloth and/or wood type structures to keep out debris, birds, and the occasional wayward person from wandering in.  Such was certainly the case in Baytown Texas, where on this particular 11 acre site, one of these pits existed.  At some point in the growth and development of the oil industry, executives became aware that so much oil was lost through evaporation and absorption into the earth and the aquifer below, that it actually makes economic sense to build above-ground metal containers–the birth of the modern oil tank farm.

But what to do with this space?  In approximately 1940 it pumped out as much crude oil as possible, caved in the side walls with bulldozers, leveled the space, and then sold the land to the city of Baytown Texas for one dollar. Baytown built a segregated middle school on the property… the George Washington Carver Middle School.

Skip ahead to the 1990s, when decades of production of nearby oil pumps as well as the taxing demands of water consumption began causing subsidence, at which point  black tar and various hydrocarbons began oozing up to the surface— as bad luck would have it right in the middle of the playground facilities at the school. The furor which ensued  closed the school and fenced the entire 11 acre space.

At some point, the city of Baytown gave the land back to the petrochemical company, and the land has sat vacant ever since, except for a school bus park, which sits on the northern end of the property. The legal wrangling is just ridiculously sad, and the end result is that my design has been in stasis for some time now. And what is that design?

Among the design objectives were such diverse elements as:

  • A permanent memorial to the children, parents, and faculty of George Washington Carver Elementary
  • A destination park
  • Native trees, shrubs, and grasses creating a certified wildlife habitat
  • Phytoremediation to alleviate existing problematic soil conditions (tarsands)
  • Migratory feeding station for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) as well as the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Engineers and legal folks fought tooth and nail for a clay cap over the contaminated area. ‘Clay caps’ are in my opinion ridiculous,  short term solutions to alleviating the problems which arise when humans interact near toxic or contaminated soils: Lay 3-4 feet of clay on top, and it’s a job well done. It’s primitive. (Obviously there is more to it than that, however not much more.)

Among many other solutions, one I suggested was a dense stand of tall prairie grasses such as Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum), Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi).

The tall prairie grasses have enormous, deep rootsystems that easily plunge 12-15′ in depth. Over time, these grasses break up and accumulate via nutritional uptake methods, a wide variety of heavy metals and other materials, which are ‘vacuumed’ up and stored in the plant’s tissue. Such plants are called hyperaccumulators, and there’s ample evidence supporting the efficacy of using phytoremediation in this space.

Here is the original rendering, a 3 foot by 5 foot color sketch on vellum which outlines the proposed solutions as well as ways in which the history of the space could be memorialized (please click the image for greater detail).

To date the space sits as it did when I first saw it. A complex and baffling layercake of fireblankets weigh it all down from moving forward.