The Northern Virginia Daily

July 24, 1999

Avtex granted new look

By Diane Hartson

Environmental Protection Agency Admisistrator Carol M. Browner painted a picture of toxic eyesores transformed into soccer fields and jobs centers while in Front Royal on Friday to announce the agency’s program to boost redevelopment of Superfund sites.

The town’s Avtex Fibers Superfund site is one of 10 sites across the nation that will receive grants of up to $100,000 to spur redevelopment, Ms. Browner said at a news conference at Avtex.

Officials also announced a separate $100,000 grant from the U.S. Soccer Federation Foundation to develop soccer fields at Ed Stump Park, a 30-acre tract at the Avtex site.

"This land, once a health hazard to the community, will now be home to soccer fields where our kids can come to playa great sport and get healthy and stay healthy," Ms. Browner said. "This land, once idle and unproductive, will also soon be home to a hotel and conference center that will generate jobs and tax revenue for the Front Royal community.

"And this land that was once an eye-sore that people avoided will now be home to shared green space where neighbors can gather."

The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority will receive $100,000 to help develop the 440-acre Avtex site. The authority plans to turn over the eastern portion of the site to mixed commercial, light industrial and hotel-conference center use and make the western portion a nature preserve.

According to documents provided by the EPA, the grant can be used for a number of projects, such as assessing land use, coordinating resources to identify land uses, hiring reuse advisors, public outreach, training and workshops on cleanups and site reuse, supporting private groups in determining the best reuse and other technical assistance.

The nine other sites that will receive the EPA grants are: Pownal Tannery in Pwnal, N.J.; Roebling Steel in Roebling, N.J.; Escambia Treating Co. in Pensacola, Fla.; Tar Lake in Mancelona, Mich.; Many Diversified Interests in Houston; National Mine Tailings in Park Hills, Mo.; Midvale Slag in Midvale, Utah; Frontier Fertilizer in Davis, Calif.; and McCormick and Baxter Creosoting Co. in Portland, Ore.

Ms. Browner said the program will involve communities in the decisions about the cleanup and reuse of Superfund sites.

"We’re doing this across the country so the local community can become part of the planning process, can sit at the table as those cleanup plans are developed, allowing them to really say what is best for their community as that site is redeveloped and cleaned up," she said.

Sens. John W. Warner and Charles S. Robb also hailed the grant as a boon to the area. Warner spoke of his longtime love of Warren County and ended his speech with a big fish tale.

"I was 5 or 6 when I first came to Front Royal," he said, noting that his uncle had a camp where relatives fished for bass in boats they poled along the Shenandoah River.

"I remember as if it were yesterday, a plant was built here in Front Royal in 1940 and the bass fishing stopped," he said. "The effluent from the plant killed the fish."

He hopes to live long enough to "get back in that river, pole the boat and catch a bass that big," he said, stretching his arms wide. The state advises fishermen not to eat fish caught in the river along and downstream from Avtex because of PCB contamination.

Robb said he also looked forward to the day when the bass would return, but with a chuckle questioned whether Warner would be able to catch a fish 4 feet long.

"This is an example of the kind of partnership that involves the community in the reclamation of this site," he said. "It will be possible to do a lot of the things this community hasn’t been able to do."

Vice Mayor Tony F. Carter said the rayon plant has been good and bad for the town and county. "The Avtex plant played an integral role in the life of this community for nearly 50 years," he said. "Beginning in 1940, this plant provided good-paying jobs to the men and women who worked here. I myself worked here for several summers. My dad worked here, as did several uncles and cousins."

The plant opened in 1940 as American Viscose and was later sold to FMC Corp. and then Avtex Fibers. "The plant allowed people to put food on the table, a roof over their heads and a chance to send their sons and daughters to college," Carter said. "Unfortunately, during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Avtex entered into the twilight of its existence. This was when we were known as ‘Front Royal, home of one of the worst Superfund sites in the country.’"

The plant was added to the federal Superfund list in 1986 and closed its doors in 1989. Carter praised three people for pushing for the cleanup and development of the site and keeping alive the hope that it would be a "diamond in the rough" for the area.

Former Mayor Stanley W. Brooks Jr. pushed for economic development when unemployment soared after the plant closed, he said.

Fred Foster pushed for action at Avtex and economic authority member William P. "Bill" Barnett crafted the plan to revitalize the county’s sagging economic development, Carter said.

Among the dozens of local, state and federal officials attending the event were a number of local children, members of the town-county Youth Soccer League.

Ms. Browner said officials must ensure a bright future for those children. "We want to make sure communities like Front Royal and every community across the country will have the tools they need to remain vibrant into the century to come," she said. "It’s the least we can do for the children. I look forward to coming back here and watching these kids play soccer."