Agreement spells out Avtex's cleanup plan


July 15 1999


A multi-million dollar settlement has been reached that will govern future cleanup at Avtex and pave the way for a speedier economic redevelopment of the site possibly starting next year, officials said.

With a FOX television news helicopter buzzing overhead and flanked by the moonscape of rubble that is now Avtex, top-ranking state and federal officials held a press conference in the searing sun of July 9 to announce the landmark accord between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice which leads enforcement at Superfund sites, and FMC Corp., a former plant operator.

The site is expected to be turned over to the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority by December under a lease agreement. The lease is contingent on a prospective purchaser agreement that would protect EDA and local governments from being sued for cleanup costs. Under Superfund legislation, past, present and future owners and operators of Superfund sites can be held liable for cleanup costs.

Friday's settlement was reached after four years of what a federal government lawyer called "earnest negotiations." It calls for FMC Corp. to pay for and undertake a cleanup project estimated at $63 million. FMC also will reimburse the EPA $9.1 million for its past costs associated with the property. The company has already spent an estimated $20 million on cleanup work.

The agreement, in an inch-thick document, was filed under a consent decree Friday in U.S. District Court in Roanoke.

Leading the press conference were top officials from Virginia Attorney General's office, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency headquarters and Region III in Philadelphia, and the U.S. Department of Justice's enforcement division.

Superfund has been roundly criticized for being mired in legal paperwork and battles, delays, and endless studies and high costs while the hands-on work of cleanup gets shoved aside.

"We're pleased that this settlement will enable EPA and FMC to focus only on cleaning up the entire site, and not on the courtroom," said EPA Region III Administrator W. Michael McCabe.

"A successful cleanup will remove this land from the Superfund priority list and return it to the community for commercial, recreational, and conservancy uses."

Joel Gross, chief of environmental enforcement at the Justice Department, said the agreement "will facilitate a decade-old blight to a mixed use river park."

"Not only does this settlement define the roles and responsibilities for completing the site cleanup, it also paves the way for redevelopment," said Robert Fields, FMC's vice president for environment and health. "Based on our meetings with the community, we understand that returning the property to productive use is a priority, and FMC supports the community in this effort."

Redevelopment of the site could begin as early as next year. Cleanup on the east side of the railroad tracks is expected to be finished in two years. But it is expected to take seven years for the entire Avtex site to be cleaned up.

It will be worth the wait, according to local officials.

"It's going to be a challenge, just like having a new baby," said James McManaway, chairman of the Warren County Board of Supervisors. "You got it. You have to take care of it."

Just how much the purchase and redevelopment of Avtex will cost county taxpayers is unknown.

"We really don't know if it will cost them something or nothing," said McManaway. It could, however, be a substantial investment that might pay off with profits down the road, he added.

Local taxpayers will likely have to spend some money for EDA to acquire the site, and to hook up water, sewer and build roads at the site. Other local money could be spent if efforts to obtain grant money for removing lead and asbestos at the site are unsuccessful. The responsibility for lead and asbestos removal falls on the town and county, since those substances aren't regulated as hazardous wastes by EPA.

Some grant money has already been secured, McManaway said.

"I suspect we will get other grants" to finish the work, he said.

A draft transfer agreement has been agreed to verbally, but a price for the site hasn't been worked out. Until the land is purchased, the EDA would be able to lease it for $1, according to the draft agreement. Then, as the property becomes decontaminated, it would be available to market.

The draft agreement spells out a profit-sharing plan by the EDA, FMC and government entities involved with Avtex.

The property is expected to be transferred from Avtex bankruptcy trustee Anthony Murray to the Front Royal/Warren County Economic Development Authority under a lease agreement by the end of the year. Avtex owes the county and town more than $1 million in back taxes, which is expected to be part of a final agreement on the transfer of the property, said William Barnett, outgoing chairman of the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority.

The transfer must be approved by a U.S. bankruptcy court in Philadelphia. Once that transfer is completed, development of about 100 acres surrounding the guard house, Stump Field, and a parking lot across from the field, could begin "almost immediately," said Barnett. The area at Stump field is slated to become soccer fields.

The Warren County School Board wants land near the entrance to Avtex for a school bus garage and maintenance facility, said School Board member Linda Poe, who attended Friday's press conference.

EPA officials said the largest cleanup challenge will be 220 acres of hazardous waste lagoons. Other work covered by the settlement includes the cleanup of abandoned site buildings, soil and ground water.

Already, EPA has dismantled more than 740,000 square feet of building space at the site. Other past cleanup activities addressed water quality degradation, removal of tons of hazardous substances, and decontamination of buildings.

Avtex manufactured synthetic fibers for 49 years, and FMC operated the plant from 1963-1976. The facility, built during World War II, supplied material to the U.S. Armed Forces, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and was the largest rayon manufacturer in the U.S.

To settle prior lawsuits brought by FMC, a number of federal agencies including the Department of Defense, NASA, and the Department of Commerce agreed to pay FMC about a third of its cleanup costs, Justice Department officials said. The government's liability is associated with its involvement with the plant during WWII and in the late 1980s to keep it running for defense-related purposes. The last owner, Avtex Fibers-Front Royal, closed the facility in November 1989 after being cited for more than 2,000 violations of Virginia environmental laws, primarily associated with wastewater discharges into the Shenandoah River.