Even if you are new to Frisco, there is a good chance you have heard about the Exide battery recycling center and the long process it has taken to get the land under the city’s control. As of October 27, 2020, Frisco took ownership of the land south of Main Street, backing up against the Dallas North Tollway, where Exide used to run their operations. It is a major milestone for the city and allows the final remediation process to begin on the land to eventually commence the development of Grand Park. Mayor Jeff Cheney jokes that “Grand Park has become the urban legend of Frisco because it has been a vision and a dream for quite a long time.”
To understand how we move forward and finally realize this more than a decade long dream of having a park that connects all parts of Frisco through green space, hiking and biking trails, water features and beyond, we have to take a look back at the history of the battery recycling center that started up operations as GMB in 1964 when Frisco was a small farming town. “This has been one of the most complicated and difficult things to have dealt with in Frisco, and it had so many moving parts to it,” recalls Maher Maso, former Frisco mayor. “There was not one thing that got us to where we are today. It was a combination of things: a growing Frisco, the demographics changing and to the original development’s credit, they bought a lot of buffer land that made it different than other plants like it.”
No one understood the dangers of lead in those days. It used to be in household paint, in our gasoline and more. Mr. Maso said the company was a good partner to the community when it first started. They donated to local charities, got involved with city government and the executive team was great to work with, all while being a large employer for the residents. Things changed over the years. Exide purchased the local company around 2001 and began operating it as part of their larger corporation. It continued to employ hundreds of people who lived in the Frisco area.
Some of the trouble began around 2008 when the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) greatly reduced what the acceptable levels of lead in the air could be. In October of that year “the EPA lowered the standard tenfold from its 1978 level of 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter” making part of Frisco near the Exide plant a Lead Nonattainment Area, according to the TCEQ website. The NAAQS, or National Ambient Air Quality Standards, was last amended in 1990 and gave the EPA the authority to change requirements for air quality. Frisco, caught in the middle of federal mandates and state recommendations, suddenly became a city in violation of TECQ air quality standards.
Also in 2008 Exide announced they were tripling the number of batteries they were recycling in the Frisco center. Mr. Maso and city manager George Purefoy learned of these plans from an article in the newspaper, not the representatives from Exide. That is when Mr. Maso said something had to be done about the recycling plant. It was no longer a business that demonstrated it was a good community partner. It had put residents at risk and the city government got to work figuring out what the options were. Mr. Maso added, “It was the perfect storm. Exide not communicating with the city, increased EPA standards and being the fastest growing city in the country with a quickly changing demographic – that set the wheels in motion for all this.” Soon residents became concerned, but the news also attracted activists from outside the city, pushing more politics into the situation and some people did not necessarily have the best interests of Frisco citizens at the forefront.
Exide was immediately tasked with investing in their operations to bring the battery recycling plant into compliance with the new EPA standards or risk being shut down at the federal level. The City of Frisco expected they would do just that. According to a letter to Frisco residents in 2010, Mr. Purefoy indicated he had met with the CEO of Exide, that there was a plant in California that had significantly reduced their pollutants and he left believing that Exide was determining whether the California plant improvements would apply to the Frisco plant. This is also the point where Frisco requested that Exide provide blood lead level testing available to residents near the plant and that it be provided to those residents without cost to them.
Mr. Maso recalls this would be the first time that Frisco had ever kicked a business out of the city. “It was a very difficult decision and probably the most difficult one I had to make personally to champion making this change. Some Frisco residents were going to lose their jobs and many were longtime residents, original families and I was very cognizant of that. Some of them were my friends. I knew I was pushing us down a path that would cause a few hundred people to lose their jobs. But it was clear to me that it was the best thing for the entire city and was the right thing to do.”
Over the next couple of years, the Exide battery recycling plant was shut down. It was not without several public meetings, however. In a letter from then CEO Jim Bolch, dated July 2011, Exide listed several measures that were being taken to meet the increased EPA standard. However, a letter from the EPA dated August of 2011, lists several violations that allowed contamination of soil, surface water and groundwater. All of these piled together and led to the first agreement between the City of Frisco and Exide, announced in May of 2012, that Exide would cease operations at their Frisco plant by December 31, 2012 and that 180 acres of buffer land would be sold to the Frisco Economic Development Corporation for $45 million. Unfortunately, this is also the point where Exide filed for bankruptcy, leaving Frisco, its government leaders and its residents wondering if Exide would follow through on their promise to clean up the land surrounding their plant to make it safe for residents to enjoy as a future park.
The details of the long, drawn-out legal proceedings are available on Frisco’s city website, but to summarize an already long story, Exide declared bankruptcy twice, the city purchased land with the understanding that Exide would pay for the cleanup, the city manager and legal team spent several years going back and forth trying to reach an agreement that allows plans for Grand Park to move forward in a safe way.
By the end of 2015, Frisco’s lead air pollutions were considered resolved by TQEC and the final redesignation of air quality was received in September of 2017. During this time, the legal back and forth of what Exide was willing to pay to clean up the site and what the city determined was required were vastly different. This led to more legal negotiations and amounts proposed by Exide listed at an estimated $2.7 million and others being between $30 and $40 million listed from bankruptcy proceedings in 2017. “It was frustrating,” Mr. Maso said. “Everyone had an opinion and even mandated we do certain things, but nobody paid for it. So our taxpayers were left holding the bag.”
During the entirety of this back and forth with Excide, the city continued planning for Grand Park. Until the land around Exide was cleaned up and the entire matter resolved, Grand Park kept getting put on hold. It went from the original idea of being 275 acres to now over 600 acres. It has been reimagined many times and each time the space gets grander and more involved. While the land dedicated to the dream that is Grand Park has been secured for some time, what it can grow to become is a legacy for Frisco and its residents now and into the future.
So here we are. At the start of 2021, Frisco finally has control of the last amount of land needed to move forward with the dream that is Grand Park. Mayor Cheney adds, “I think that part of the frustration from our residents was not seeing progress. It was a long time coming and being a council member and now mayor, I have always been part of the discussions. The meeting that we have where we do not talk about Exide will be one that we celebrate – every meeting over the last 10 years we have had conversations about Exide.” While there is still work to be done on the site that formerly housed Exide and the battery recycling plant, we can count on more definite plans to get that done, because the city is in control of the process. “The analogy I have used was when I ask my teenager if their room is clean and they say yes, then I follow up and ask if their mom would think their room is clean,” Mayor Cheney adds. Exide’s version of clean was not what Frisco believed was acceptable, so the city is working with TCEQ to make sure the land is brought back into the park vision properly.
All of this took place over the course of approximately fifteen years. Years where mayors and council members changed, although many were a part of it from the beginning. Years where federal and state governments were sometimes at odds with what the city government on what was best for the site. Years where a business went from increasing their operations, to two bankruptcies and eventually tried to limit the amount of money they would spend on cleaning up the land they called home for decades. Both Mayor Cheney and Mr. Maso credit the diligence of George Purefoy and the city’s lawyer Richard Abernathy for keeping the project going. “We put our trust and faith in George Purefoy to execute this and he delivered,” Mayor Cheney said. Without the long-term vision and the commitment of everyone from the board all being on the same page, this chapter might not have ever been closed. “It took a unified council to move forward,” added Mr. Maso.
While there is still work to be done, the vision of Grand Park and what it can bring to Frisco residents is more alive than ever and closer to reality than it has ever been. Mayor Cheney says, “Part of the reason I initially ran for city council in 2007 was reading an article about the concept of Grand Park and knowing that I wanted to work on that project. The vision has grown quite a bit, even since then, and while most of our residents have seen some kind of rendering many do not realize how big it has become.” Originally Grand Park was going to be 300 acres, but Mayor Cheney says it “now includes the Exide property on the east side of the Tollway.” He continues, “We have nestled the future library and museum district as a component of Grand Park, all of our hike and bike master plans have been designed to interconnect with Grand Park being the heart of the city and all of our trail system branching out as arteries throughout the community – all the way to Lake Lewisville, the Rail District, up through the PGA and down south to the Star. You can park your car there and get anywhere you want within the city of Frisco. It is an exciting vision. Despite all the great projects in Frisco, I think Grand Park will be the project that Frisco is best known for and I expect that it will be a world-class park that this community is very proud of for generations.”
While it has been a long road to get to Grand Park, the work that the leaders of Frisco put in to resolve the Exide property cleanup through collaborative negotiation instead of court battles demonstrates that good things come to those who wait and never give up on the dream.