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Front Royal's Superfund site showing signs of ecological revival

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John G. Torrence, site manager for Avtex Fibers Superfund Site, kneels in a field of coreopsis lanceolata that covers the former site of Viscose Basin #5 on the former Avtex site. The hearty perennial is a safe haven for many small animals on the superfund site. Rich Cooley/Daily

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A red winged black bird sits in a field of grasses at the former Avtex Fibers site in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

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A turtle swims along the surface of the storm water pond at the former Avtex Fibers site in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Joe Beck -- jbeck@nvdaily.com

Here is what progress looks like at the Superfund site in Front Royal formerly occupied by the Avtex Fiber plant: the EPA oversight inspector has left, and the frogs and butterflies are coming back.

Spring 2012 at what was once of the most forbidding stretches of land in Virginia has brought more optimism and hope than usual this year to John Torrence. Torrrence, who manages the site for FMC Corp., the company assigned by the EPA to clean up the toxic chemicals left by decades of intense industrial processes, spoke glowingly of the progress he sees all around him.

Foxes, beavers, geese and, most importantly, butterflies and frogs - they're all here and growing in numbers on land that was once considered hopelessly contaminated, Torrence said. The clean up effort involving the EPA, the state Department of Environmental Quality, and FMC is finally paying off, Torrence said.

"This has all the earmarks of being a successful project," Torrence said as he toured the site one day recently. "The EPA, FMC and DEQ are all crossing the finish line as winners."

Such an outcome didn't seem likely back in 1989 when bankrupt Avtex closed the plant, three years after the EPA added it to the agency's list of Superfund cleanup sites. The factory opened in 1940 as a response to the military's need for synthetic fibers in parachutes and other equipment that would be used in the war against Germany and Japan. The plant continued manufacturing materials such as rayon, polyester and polypropylene until its closure. Removal of toxic chemical residues from soil and water has continued since then, a project that included the demolition of 17 acres of buildings in 1997.

Biologists and volunteer census takers began checking the population of various forms of wildlife at the sprawling 433-acre Superfund site around 2000. In recent years, they have detected several encouraging signs of ecological revival.

M. Victoria McDonald, a researcher affiliated with the University of Central Arkansas and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal wrote the following commentary in 2009 on the butterfly population: "We found 14 species of butterflies in the summer of 2007, all of them common and expected for the relatively few wild flower types blooming at the Avtex site. We discovered an increase in diversity of butterflies in 2008; we tabulated 23 different species in just a few weeks of mid summer sampling."

McDonald said the increased numbers and diversity "could be weather-related" but were more likely the product of "increasing ecological diversity that is being created naturally and by planting native Virginia vegetation at the Avtex site."

Torrence said the news about the butterflies heartened him for an additional reason.

"When the air is fresh and clean, you have more of them. When it isn't fresh and clean you have fewer," he said.

Frogs and salamanders, two more key indicators of a healthy habitat, are also showing signs of revival among the species counted at the site.

An FMC cleanup crew found a salamander while digging up and removing sewer lines in 2008, and a second one was found later that year.

McDonald reported finding four species of frogs and one salamander in her 2009 report, adding that "green frogs are considered to be the 'pioneers' of habitats previously devoid of breeding amphibians, and they are also considered to be the toughest - or best able to withstand contaminants - of all the mid-Atlantic area amphibians. We are hopeful that the calling frogs will soon produce tadpoles that mature and breed themselves."

The first tadpoles were spotted last year, giving another boost to Torrence's optimism about the site's future.

"They're actually breeding here," Torrence said of the frogs, calling it "an indicator that the whole quality of the site has been improving."

Torrence and others working on the cleanup effort are expecting to pass another milestone within a few months when the EPA does some final checks before deciding whether to issue a letter of "no further interest," meaning the agency has no plans for conducting more investigations at the site. An agency inspector assigned to oversee the cleanup effort for 14 years completed his work in September, Torrence said.

The letter declaring no further interest would clear the way for the Warren County-Front Royal Economic Development Authority to begin formally offering 162 acres at the site that has been reserved for business development.


Did they clean up the old dump on 619 where avtex dumped all their checmicals and junk too?

Or will that be another super fund site later on?

May I remind all that Avtex dumped chemicals in the Shenandoah River and it turned BLACK ! Did that all go downstream to the Potomac and beyond to the Atlantic Ocean? This clean-up is delusional !


Personally, my favorite part is:

"The letter declaring no further interest would clear the way for the Warren County-Front Royal Economic Development Authority to begin formally offering 162 acres at the site that has been reserved for business development."

Oh boy, nature is coming back, we better hurry up and kill it! No reports of bears in the village yet (they may be scared), lets get them some special trash cans.

I am happy to read that life is returning… I recently moved to this area – a new development on Blue Mtn. The builder was allowed to rape the land – remove all vegetation - it has taken us several years to see the birds, frogs, worms, and salamanders return. SO thank you to all those responsible for helping restore nature. Why can't we leave it alone - be a park - do you have to destory it?

I hope they're not thinking about another public-private partnership!!! The quote below is loosely related, but please, let's stay on the subject!:

"Our politicians look at us as one giant insurance policy.
Apparently they believe that if anything in the financial world goes wrong that U.S. taxpayers should be the ones to clean up the mess. But will we really have enough money to bail everyone out when the derivatives market crashes? Today, the 9 largest banks in the United States have a total of more than 200 trillion dollars of exposure to derivatives. That is approximately 3 times the size of the entire global economy.
The U.S. government is already nearly 16 trillion dollars in debt. How in the world can we afford to keep bailing out the huge messes that Wall Street [and the government] makes?"

Approximately half of the Avtex site will be available for new development, and about half will be returned to a "natural" environment. There is a railroad track that bisects the Avtex property and it serves as the default dividing line. The portion of land between the railroad track and the river will not be developed because of a remaining underground chemical contamination plume. Minimal soil disturbance will be permitted for building and road construction east of the railroad track.

Avtex used settling ponds in the manufacturing process. Over the decades liquids from these ponds seeped into the underlying ground, resulting in an underground plume of contamination identified by EPA surveys that extends from the Avtex site, under the railroad, under the river, under the opposite western river bank and then several hundred yards more, reaching past Rivermont Acres Road and partially into Ron Llewellyn's Catlett Road Development that was required to use municipal water and prohibited using well water for housing development. The EDA can provide a map of this chemical contamination plume. This plume was not cleaned up and remains in place today. The EPA has several monitoring wells on the west bank. No new official surveys have been performed to determine how far the contamination plume has expanded in size since the original survey. Two old developments on the west bank, Fiddlers Green and Rivermont Commons, are prohibited from erecting permanent dwellings and remains zoned as camping only permitted to current lot owners. The EPA and the EDA purchased many of these lots from the original owners as part of the Avtex Superfund cleanup. The Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality have posted the south fork of the Shenandoah River with signs warning fishermen of the health dangers of eating fish caught in waters adjacent to and downstream from the Avtex rezoning area.

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