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A vision and volunteers turn a toxic dump into Zonolite Park

By Ben Smith

Photo of Zonolite Park

Zonolite Park in northeast Atlanta offers this view of the South Fork of Peachtree Creek. (Credit: Ben Smith)

A raccoon’s muddy tracks are a small shining symbol of the transformation of an asbestos-laden wetland into a new public park in northeast Atlanta, and the perseverance of volunteers who envisioned that nature could trump industrial pollution.

Zonolite Park “was land that nobody else wanted,” said DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader, who celebrated last week with the South Fork Conservancy, the nonprofit group that is replanting the grounds and making trails to connect with other Atlanta parks. The project, he announced, was just awarded $100,000 in federal matching funds for trail building.

The volunteers marked a year from the completion of the federally ordered cleanup of the site, which at $2 million is but a sliver of  the largest cash settlement ($250 million) in the history of the Environment Protection Agency. The park’s reinvention also shows how a supply chain can bring in business and killer byproducts. Reversing that damage took a chain of volunteers willing to help restore the ecosystem.

Photo of old Zonolite advertisement

From 1950 to 1970, Zonolite was a popular attic insulation processed in northeast Atlanta. The raw mineral later was found to have natural asbestos fibers. (Credit: Asbestorama)

Zonolite Park is 12 acres near Briarcliff and Clifton Roads, where the South Fork of Peachtree Creek parallels railroad tracks. For two decades beginning in 1950, freight trains stopped at the W.R. Grace Co. plant and dumped as much as 1,225 tons of raw material for attic insulation marketed as Zonolite. Grace was an important business in DeKalb County, and the street where the plant was located was named Zonolite Road.

But Zonolite’s raw material carried natural asbestos fibers, and the Montana mine where it was dug ended up the target of a massive EPA investigation. Grace Co. executives were indicted in 2005 for knowingly placing the town of Libby, Montana, in danger and later covering up their actions. They were acquitted in 2009, but the company had filed bankruptcy and abandoned its Atlanta site. A Montana judge had to approve the $2 million needed to remove 27,000 tons of contaminated soil at what would become Zonolite Park.

Enter the Conservancy, which pulled together volunteers to cut through privet and vines to make preliminary trails that lead through the wooded parts of the track and down to the creek. Since November, the conservancy spent $10,000 to restore bushes and trees that are native to the park, such as red maple trees and sassafras and blueberry bushes.

Photo of cleanup of the Zonolite site in 2011. Credit: Kevin Eichinger, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Cleanup of the Zonolite site in 2011. Credit: Kevin Eichinger, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

“We think the fur is really going to fly now here that we have the support of federal money, through the state, through the county with the support of all of you,” South Fork Conservancy executive director Sally Sears said to last week’s gathering of supporters.

Tracks made by raccoons, deer and herons suggest that animal life is returning to the once blighted stretch of land. Conservancy leaders and supporters of the project hope the humans will follow. They already frequent nearby businesses such as Floataway Cafe and Briarcliff Animal Clinic.

Supporters of Zonolite Park and related projects envision a linear park containing trails along the North and South Forks of Peachtree Creek, crossing parts of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb Counties. The trails would connect Zonolite Park with the Wildwood Urban Forest and Morningside/Lenox Park, the Emory University campus, Peavine Creek, the Fernbank Forest, the Olmsted Linear Parks on Ponce de Leon Avenue, Mason Mill Park and Medlock Park.

“Our intent over time, and I suspect I won’t be able to see it, is to connect all of the South Fork [of Peachtree Creek] from Tucker and Decatur to the Belt Line,” said Bob Kerr, chairman of the conservancy.

Photo of raccoon tracks at Zonolite Park.

Raccoon tracks at Zonolite Park.

One motivation is to restore nature to car-bound Atlanta citizens, we who have become increasingly disconnected to the rhythms of streams and peacefulness of wooded trails. Unlike industry, “natural systems are in constant rejuvenation,” said conservancy treasurer Billy Hall.

“We are remarkably fortunate to have this river system that is actually intact. Now it’s greatly impaired, but we have the opportunity by putting ourselves back as part of it,” he said.

“The natural systems: the flow of the land, the flow of the waters, we can be a part of that” he said. “That is what is built into our DNA. That is what we are.”

Ben Smith can be reached at [email protected].

Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and writing coach based in Decatur, and her day job is senior editor on Emory University's development communications team. Michelle worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years as a sports reporter, columnist and Sunday feature writer, and her stories of recovery and redemption bridge unexpected places and people across Atlanta. She lives in Decatur with her husband Ben Smith, also a journalist, and their two awesome daughters. She can be reached at [email protected]

10 replies
    • Sally Sears says:

      The 1100 Block of Zonolite Place, zip code 30306 is the best park entrance. You’ll see gravel parking spaces, beside a wonderful vintage auto shop and Ray the Blacksmith’s shop, across the street from the Soto Zen Center. The entrance to the trail is clear: walk around the gate, which is locked to keep vehicles from damaging the flood plain. We expect DeKalb County’s work will make the entrance through a community garden more attractive to everyone. Security and access to green space are at the heart of the Conservancy’s hopes for this vital restoration. Sally SearsReport

      Reply
  1. Barbara Baggerman says:

    Good article; but I’d like to point out a couple of factual errors. You say “…animal life is returning to the once blighted stretch.” As someone who has actively explored this creek and its greenspaces for decades, I can tell you that animal life has been there all along, thriving because it was unoccupied by humans. Animal life will likely decrease now that humans have returned, but wildlife still manages to find its niche along the creek.

    Also, you mention the Wildwood Urban Forest. Its correct name is actually the Morningside Nature Preserve. I believe the name of “Wildwood Urban Forest” is not allowed to be used per terms of the legal agreement made when a developer ceded the land to the City after neighbors successfully fought development of this parcel.Report

    Reply
  2. Chris McGuire says:

    As the second longest tenant adjacent to this ‘park’ I can tell you its a joke. They came in,tore down trees, dug up and removed tons of soil, laid down plastic, and covered the plastic with new soil. Most of this soil has now disappeared as this is all occurring in a flood plain. This is not a park! It has a locked gate. The only actual entrance is through the Zonolite office building property. Our crime rate has gone through the roof to an average of an incident of one a week. We are having to pay for CCTVs now because of this vanity project. Prior to the parks being publicized, we had perhaps 5 crimes over a decade. By clearing off all the current vegetation in the flood plain the soil is eroding quickly and most of the area is generally a bog. This runoff has been going on for decades. There is no way removing the soil from the higher ground has cleared the toxic waste from the lower area. Also, the flood plain should be left alone to do what it is supposed to do…flood. We don’t need to add any more human waste to our water supply by putting a park there. Infuriating.Report

    Reply
  3. Richard Grove says:

    Great article by Ben Smith

    For those who want a different but also a truly beautiful adventure in nature, are not afraid to get their feet wet and would like to see the aquatic version of the trail, Richard Grove will be glad to give you a guided kayak tour of South ForkReport

    Reply
  4. Rama N. Roy says:

    I’ve been a tenant on Zonolite Road since 1996, and I am very excited to see (and be a part of) the progress at Zonolite Park. The brownfield remediation was a definite necessity, and I believe that all parties involved are handling its transformation both thoughtfully and responsibly. I’m looking forward to making the trek on the full network of trails once complete and enjoying the wonderful arboretum that is own backyard at ZRP.Report

    Reply

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