Friday, July 08, 2005

Gassy St. Louis

In the wake of yesterday's horrific attacks on London commuters, many people have been pondering the safety of public transit.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the June 24th fire and explosions at Praxair in the Lafayette Square neighborhood, many people have been pondering just how safe it is to live near industrial facilities that process volatile chemicals and gases.

I am concerned that these two issues could potentially be related, at least indirectly. Very near the Grand Avenue MetroLink station in Midtown St. Louis, is a terminal for a company called Airgas Mid-America (formerly Gateway Airgas). The address is 3500 Bernard Street.

I don't know what sort of gases are processed at Airgas Mid-America, however the Washington University Purchasing Department classifies both Airgas Mid-America and Praxair as preferred vendors for "cylinder gases." More specifically, here are the products they each offer, according to the WashU site.

Airgas Mid-America, 3500 Bernard St.
Argon, carbon dioxide, helium, nitrogen oxygen, etc.

Praxair Distribution, 2210 Chouteau Ave.
Argon, carbon dioxide, helium, nitrogen oxygen, etc.

Sounds pretty similar to me. Of course, the real concern would be if both were distributors of highly flammable gases like acetylene. Airgas Mid-America does distribute acetylene, and the 3500 Bernard St. location is described on their website as the following:

Fill Plant
Specialty Gas Lab - Regional
Equipment Rental
Medical Branch

Sounds pretty similar to the Praxair operation at 2210 Chouteau Ave.

So, what's the concern?

Here's an aerial view of Praxair and vicinity. In the center of the photo is the intersection of Hickory St. and Mackay Pl.

Praxair Distribution, 2210 Chouteau Ave., and vicinity

Here's an aerial view of Airgas Mid-America and vicinity. In the center of the photo is the Grand Avenue MetroLink station platform.

Airgas Mid-America, 3500 Bernard St., and vicinity

The Airgas Mid-America facility, while not near any residences, is nevertheless quite close to the MetroLink platform, and even closer to the bus stops on Scott Ave. that serve the Manchester, Lindenwood, and Sarah MetroBus routes.

A related question is that of zoning. Praxair executives consistently claim their property is zoned for that type of operations. Both the Praxair and Airgas locations are zoned J-Industrial. This means, according to the City zoning code, that "The use regulations are the same as those in the I central business district." This suggests that, among other restrictions, "A building or premises may be used for any purpose except... acetylene gas manufacture; ...gas manufacture or storage" (Section 26.52.020, City of St. Louis Revised Code; emphasis added).

So are these sites REALLY zoned for such usage? They MAY have conditional use permits, but they appear to be questionable in their compliance with the formal zoning restrictions for the J-Industrial zoning district.

Finally, it is worth noting there is a redevelopment plan, approved in 1986 by city ordinance, on file for the Praxair parcel. It calls for the site to be converted to residential and commercial (non-industrial) uses. I can't find the document, but I think it was called the Lafayette Square Northwest plan.

While Airgas Mid-America may not be part of a redevelopment area, it certainly falls within the territory desired by St. Louis University for campus expansion and integration. Perhaps the rebuilding of the Grand Avenue viaduct will provide an opportunity to buyout the Airgas Mid-America property, and replace it with something more appropriate and safe for a location so proximate to a high-volume public transit facility. And, maybe, just maybe, Metro would consider using the property for a park-ride lot that city residents could actually use, instead of parking on narrow Scott Avenue!

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