County officials say spill is toxic

FRONT ROYAL – County officials are pressuring a property owner to get rid of seven 55-gallon drums containing what they believe to be toxic waste that was found leaking at the site of a crumbling, long defunct motel.

The drums, described in a court document as “leaking a brown and black liquid material” onto a paved area, were deemed to pose no immediate threat to public health by county and state officials.

The owner, Shihab Khatib of Great Falls, has been given 30 days to respond to a letter notifying him of the drums found on his property, six acres off of Winchester Road across from the Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club Resort and between the Virginia Inland Port and Toray Drive.

Warren County Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico said the liquid leaking from the drums is “a petroleum product consistent with tar from a roofing job.”

“It appears that property has been used as an illegal dumping area,” Maiatico added. “It appears there’s a lot of roofing material, including shingles and debris in the area of the buildings.”

Maiatico filed an investigation warrant in Warren County Circuit Court that describes an initial visit he made to the property on May 26 at the request of the county zoning department.

“Upon entering the property, I noticed seven 55-gallon metal drums in various positions leaking a black and brown liquid material,” Maiatico wrote.

Maiatico said in an interview that the spill covered only a small area, and the absence of creeks, wells and other water sources led officials to conclude that the liquid, “while hazardous, is not immediately hazardous to human life per se.”

The site includes the remnants of the former General Lee Motor Lodge, a dilapidated structure that closed many years ago.

Khatib said the drums, tires, construction debris and other material at the site were left by trespassers. Khatib said he had not used the site for illegal dumping and denied that the liquid contained in the drums was toxic. He described it as tar and paint thinner.

Khatib has listed the property for sale at $1.595 million. He blamed the county for failing to protect the long vacant property against intruders and forcing him to clean up after them.

“I don’t know who dumped them on the property,” Khatib said of the drums. “It’s going to cost me many thousands of dollars to clean it up.”

Matt Wendling, a planner with the county zoning department, said agency records show the property has been in Khatib’s family since the 1990s, well after the motel closed.

Wendling said the area around the property is served by municipal sewer and water lines that eliminate much of the threat to public health posed by toxic chemicals spilling into the environment.

But Wendling said government officials remain keenly interested in ridding the property of toxic waste and debris. They would also like to work with Khatib in demolishing the motel and sprucing up the property.

The county has worked hard to beautify the U.S. 340 corridor and turn it into a valuable stretch of commercial land, Wendling said, an effort that is undermined when structures fall into disrepair and land is neglected.

“It has been a derelict structure for a number of years,” Wendling said of the motel. “With some of the construction we’ve got going on in that corridor, with the fact that we’ve got the premier conference center of Blue Ridge Shadows across the road, it could be an eyesore and attraction to vagrants.”

Wendling said Khatib’s property is overgrown with vegetation, which makes it hard for county officials passing by to detect illegal dumping or other unauthorized activity around the former motel.

“It would be well worth it to invest in the demolition of that structure to make that property more marketable and beautify and make it more aesthetic, not just for people looking at the property but for folks driving up and down the corridor,” Wendling said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com