A clean slate

After years of work, Avtex Fibers Superfund site cleared for public use

By Katie Demeria

FRONT ROYAL — The 440-acre Avtex Fibers Superfund site is visible from one of the first overlooks on Skyline Drive. Once, a visitor could see smoke billowing from the facility.

Now, after 25 years of work that included the removal of enormous quantities of sometimes dangerous materials, a 240-acre conservancy area is visible from the overlook, nestled against the Shenandoah River.

The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority will celebrate the site’s return to local residents Saturday. The Environmental Protection Agency will present the authority with a letter of no further interest.

The site’s remediation was a joint effort between the EPA, which listed the site on its national priorities list in 1986, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and the FMC Corporation, which owned the area from 1963 until 1976.

It was one of the largest Superfund sites in Virginia, according to Kevin Greene, the Department of Environmental Quality’s program manager.

Greene pointed out that the site opened in 1940 as part of the war effort.

“So over those 50 years there was a significant change in the way we look at rivers,” Greene said. “It went from seeing it as a raw material and waste receptacle, to seeing it as an ecological and environmental concern, and from that, changes in the law and attitudes took place that ultimately caught up with the plant.”

There were various concerns over the Avtex facility discharging dangerous materials, but the river in particular was receiving high amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls, according to Greene.

Kate Lose, the EPA remedial project manager, said “it was a very bad situation” when authorities stepped in.

“I’ve only been on this project for six years, but I was told that you could go in and see acid eating away at the footings on the supports for the buildings. It looked like the buildings were going to collapse,” Lose said.

Ultimately, according to an EDA news release, vast quantities of materials were removed, including 200 tractor trailer loads of asbestos, 18,000 gallons of fuel oil and 1 million cubic yards of fly ash.

And yet another major undertaking was removing the thousands of linear feet of sewer. John Torrence, senior manager on behalf of FMC, said between 55,000 and 60,000 linear feet of sewer had to be removed.

“And when you think that a mile is 5,000 linear feet, that’s many miles of sewer that needed to come out of the ground,” he said.

Those sewers were on the east side of the railroad tracks that run through the property, the area that is now ready for redevelopment. On the west side, between the tracks and the Shenandoah River, the 240-acre conservancy sits above disposal basins.

Greene said the basins were removed when possible, and at other times heavy-duty caps were placed on top, creating a landfill.

Groundwater was also impacted by discharged material from Avtex, particularly by carbon disulfide. FMC built a leachate treatment plant, which is essentially a wastewater treatment plant, as part of the remedy for those basins, Lose said.

Carbon disulfide is not necessarily toxic, she added. Rather, if its pH levels are modified too much, it can result in explosions.

“They had groundwater contamination that went 300 to 400 feet down in some areas,” she said.

That treatment plant, according to Lose, will now treat the groundwater so it meets the state discharge limits when discharging into the Shenandoah River.

Torrence said FMC planted native grasses in the conservancy that encourage animals to return. He said it is currently “abundant with wildlife.”

“They were planted intentionally to create an ecosystem that would be similar to the ecosystem that was present in the Shenandoah Valley hundreds of years ago,” he said.

The goal is that soon a trail will be created in the area, allowing people to enjoy it. And hopefully, he added, it will be part of the Happy Creek Trail that runs through town.

“I know 25 years does not seem like it’s fast, but it really has been,” Greene said. “And now we’re done. It was the largest Superfund site in Virginia. It’s certainly a controversial Virginia landmark, both positive and negative.”

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com