Avtex clean-up on track for late 2014

By Alex Bridges

The environmental clean-up of the former Avtex plant in Front Royal remains on track, say federal officials involved with the project.

But local leaders and residents anxious to see the project’s completion and the beginning of the land’s reuse must wait until the end of 2014, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In a recent interview, Kate Lose, remedial project manager for the EPA, explained the work under way at the site.

“In a sense, other than EPA reviewing a few reports to make sure that everything’s been met in terms of the work that was done, we’re at the finish line — almost,” Lose said. “In terms of the town or the EDA [Economic Development Authority] going into develop it, I’m telling you we’re at the finish line for that section of it.”

Plans call for the development of 175 acres on the site for industrial or commercial use, 30 acres of soccer fields and 240 acres for a conservancy park along the Shenandoah River. Work on the park is nearly complete, Lose said.

Earlier this year, members of Town Council voiced interest in the status of the project and the idea of an open house or other public event. When it appeared that likely would not happen, council sought to ask the EPA about the apparent delay. Jennifer McDonald, executive director of the Economic Development Authority, came back to council and advised against sending any letters to the EPA because it would delay the report review process.

“Right now we have a schedule and FMC is performing work according to the schedule and we’re, if anything, ahead of schedule,” Lose said. “We’re moving forward.”

FMC Corporation, the firm partly responsible for the site’s contamination, is under a consent decree, or agreement, overseen by the Department of Justice, to perform work on the site, according to the EPA.

FMC contracted Environmental Resources Management to conduct the clean-up work on the plant property. John Torrence, site manager and representative with the contracted company, explained that most of the plant’s older wastewater treatment facility that dates to the 1940s has been demolished. The company has kept a section operational until it completes work on a groundwater leachate treatment plant under construction between the railroad tracks and the South Fork of the Shenandoah River above the 100-foot floodplain.

The EPA’s “record of decision” identifies the cost of the groundwater plant, known as operable unit No. 7, between $30 million and $35 million, Torrence explained.

“FMC has gone above and beyond what was originally required of them in order to complete the remediation of this project site,” Torrence said.

The company expects to complete construction of the groundwater plant in February followed by a series of test runs of the facility before it goes online by midsummer 2014, he said.

The groundwater plant will treat the water and release it into the river for the foreseeable future.

Remediation of the environmental hazards is complete to the point that no open basins or buildings remain that could pose a threat to personnel. Workers still face challenges at the site with all the activity taking place and managers meet regularly to make sure everyone stays on the same page, Torrence said.

“So there’s just a lot of strategy, a lot of coordination and, first and foremost above everything else, is making sure we’re working in a healthy and safe way,” Torrence said.

Lose lauded FMC for agreeing to construct the new water treatment plant even though the cost far exceeded the limit included in the consent decree.

“They really should be commended for the work that they’re doing out there,” Lose said.

Crews also are digging several deep bedrock wells that go several thousand feet underground to capture groundwater for treatment. They are also building caps on three viscose basins — a source of groundwater contamination — as well as a system to collect liquid that may leak from the caps. Caps installed on some basins years ago also required repairs.

Clean-up efforts on the former plant area to the east of the railroad tracks have concluded. The area has been graded and samples of the site collected. Once construction of the wastewater plant and extraction wells is complete the EPA plans to perform tests on the groundwater.

Over the past year or more, town leaders also discussed the issue of constructing a connector road through the area of the site marked for future development to get to adjacent soccer fields. The EPA worked to remediate the area of the site considered for that road.

A concern was raised that a prospective developer may not want to deal with a permanent connector road so a temporary route was suggested.

“Quite frankly, I haven’t heard anything from anyone about the connector road in two years,” Lose said.

Avtex manufactured fibers such as rayon, polyester and polypropylene during its nearly half-century in operation. FMC owned the plant from 1963 to 1976 when Avtex Fibers Inc. bought the site. Avtex shut down the plant in 1989 and declared bankruptcy.

The EPA added the site to its National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites under the Superfund program in 1986. Beginning that year, Avtex and later FMC conducted investigations and took action to clean up the site. The EPA has taken removal and remedial actions since 1989.

The EPA began the demolition of buildings covering approximately 17 acres of the site beginning in 1997. Building removal activities continued in recent years with debris taken off site to EPA-approved landfills.

The Avtex plant had regularly violated its permits by discharging wastewater into the South Fork of the Shenandoah River that contained high amounts of various pollutants and chemicals, primarily PCBs, Lose said. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality withdrew the plant’s discharge permit, she noted. Shortly thereafter Avtex shut down the plant.

“Unfortunately, when they shut their doors they left the building standing. The tanks were full of material, the sewers were full of material and it was really an emergency removal [situation] initially to just contain the site,” Lose said. “Over time all immediate threats of the buildings and the drums and the tanks and the sewers have been removed.”

The EDA owns the property and will seek firms to develop the site. Construction managers provide the EDA with regular work site updates.

The EPA helped the EDA several years ago court a firm that wanted to build a solar panel “farm” on the property by cleaning up certain areas of the site. The project didn’t reach fruition.

Wastewater will continue to be treated at the facility under a state permit and discharged to the South Fork. FMC will hire a contractor to operate the treatment plant.

The overall project also includes the creation of a conservation area on part of the site that included several capped waste disposal units. The conservation area can include hiking and walking trails but construction remains prohibited because of the presence of the underground disposal units.

The conservation area shows that part of the once-contaminated superfund site supports a growing, natural environment.

“It’s really quite attractive down there,” Lose said.

Visit www.epa.gov/superfund/accomp/success/avtex.htm or www.avtexfibers.com for more information.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com