Many involved in cleanup effort

By Alex Bridges

FRONT ROYAL — Cleanup of the Avtex Fibers Superfund site couldn’t happen without government oversight.

The site had sat vacant since 1989 after Avtex left the facility and the courts determined the responsibilities of the FMC Corporation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency in the cleanup.

The Warren County Economic Development Authority became involved in the cleanup effort in 1999 after the late Front Royal Town Councilman Fred Foster and authority board member Bill Barnett pushed for the site’s development, Executive Director Jennifer McDonald said. McDonald worked as project manager at the time.

“Here we were with a vacant piece of property in our backyard and someone had to take ownership of it,” McDonald said.

The EDA took ownership of the site in March 2000 while FMC continued the remediation under the oversight of the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice. Parties also included the Avtex trustee, the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District and the Valley Conservation Council.

The federal agencies chose the stakeholders who maintained an interest in the project. The EPA agreed not to sue the EDA for any wrongdoing committed on the site by third parties. The Department of Justice set restrictions on how the EDA could develop the site.

“It was a very extensive list, which kind of limited us to almost nothing,” McDonald said. “We have worked and worked and worked on getting that revised and we’re finally at the point where they’re gonna be revised.”

The Superfund project took many of the involved parties into uncharted territory and the rules caused some confusion, McDonald said.

“This was the first time that I believe any of us had actually dealt with a site like this and the situation we were in, and the reason that the DOJ put such harsh restrictions at the beginning is they didn’t know what it was going to end up being,” McDonald added.“They had to protect themselves and the EPA in making sure that this site was gonna be clean, and if it wasn’t that we weren’t just going to arbitrarily start developing.”

The extensive process used by the federal agencies to remediate Superfund sites can take years. Paperwork for each project alone can bog down the process.

“EPA needed to review every single report that FMC was providing and the reports were not small reports,” McDonald said. “They were thousands of pages long.”

EPA Project Manager Kate Lose said Wednesday the sheer size of the Avtex plant created much work for the agency.

“It’s time consuming,” Lose said.

An oversight contractor with 15 years experience on the project continues to help review the necessary documents, Lose said.

The effort hit a couple of snags along the way but McDonald credited Congressmen Bob Goodlatte and Frank Wolf for playing major roles in helping to keep the project moving forward. Wolf convinced Congress to provide additional funding for the project when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ran out of money needed to raze one of the large buildings on the site. Wolf helped secure about $14 million-$16 million of the $26 million to cover the cost to demolish the power plant that occurred in 2005.

Years later Goodlatte worked with federal agencies to help move the project along, McDonald said.

Parties also reached a deal to release the Soil and Water Conservation District and the Valley Conservation Council as stakeholders and to add the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to provide further oversight on the property. While this reduces the number of groups involved in the project, the action maintains the government’s involvement.

The EPA will continue to play a role at the site, as will FMC, McDonald and Lose said. McDonald noted that she did not know what involvement, if any, the Department of Justice would have after the EDA receives the site.

Local government involvement also included County Attorney Blair Mitchell and Town Attorney Douglas Napier who, in recent months, worked with federal agencies on a Uniform Environmental Covenant Act agreement that removes some of the prohibited uses of the site. Restrictions prohibiting schools, residential dwellings and other uses from the site remain. However, that effort took at least three years, McDonald said.

Mitchell said by email Wednesday he couldn’t count the number of hours he has worked on Avtex, beginning in early 2008.

“It has been the biggest single project I have worked on since being county attorney,” Mitchell said.

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