Boise & Garden City

Esther Simplot Park excavation in Boise unearths debris, contamination

The future site of Boise’s Esther Simplot Park has been used many ways over the years, few of them compatible with a city park.

In the 1940s, some of the land was used as an airfield to train student pilots. Sometime later, a concrete company pastured horses on it. In 1964, Consolidated Concrete bought the land and put a concrete plant there.

In those days, the stretch of the Boise River running through the city was very different from the way it looks today. Instead of a Greenbelt, anglers and floaters, you would have seen an industrial corridor and dumping grounds.

About the time Consolidated Concrete bought the land where Esther Simplot Park is now under construction, the city began the process of turning the Boise River banks from a wasteland into one of Boise’s most beloved features.

Given the park site’s history, it wasn’t a huge surprise when crews working on it recently discovered a variety of buried refuse, including old bridge decks, tires, asphalt, bricks, drums, barrels and petroleum products. Some of the stuff was unearthed as workers dug out ponds that the park will feature.

The waste they found is a wrinkle in the construction of the 55-acre park west of Whitewater Park Boulevard and north of Pleasanton Avenue. The family of Idaho agriculture king J.R. Simplot is paying for the development of the park, which is to be a tribute to J.R’s wife, Esther, a philanthropist and arts benefactor who once sang at Carnegie Hall. Neither the family nor the city have disclosed how much the project is costing.

Construction began in February. Planned features include 17 acres of ponds where people can swim and fish; a playground designed to encourage imagination and creativity; beaches; a river connecting the new ponds to Quinn’s Pond to the south; and a pathway through a natural wetlands area.

Mayor Dave Bieter is asking the City Council on Tuesday to pick up the tab for removing the newfound debris and waste from the park site. Boise’s budget experts haven’t put an exact number to the cost, but Bieter is requesting authorization to spend up to $2.5 million.

The money would come from an account set aside for big new projects, though the city didn’t anticipate using its savings on this project. The account has about $5.5 million in it today, said Mike Journee, Bieter’s spokesman.

Journee said the city will look for other sources of money, such as government and private grants, to pay for the Esther Simplot site cleanup.

Catherine Chertudi, the city’s environmental programs manager, said construction crews are following the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s guidelines for making sure the waste is cleaned up the right way. Material that’s removed will be taken to a local processing company that will clean it up, Chertudi said. There’s some urgency. A delay of removing the waste could delay the rest of the project, which the city hopes is done next spring.

The contractors’ equipment costs “are nearly $40,000 per day,” according to Bieter’s request to the council.