November 18, 1999

Avtex in the works

By Roger Bianchini

Local officials and interested citizens got varying perspectives on a work in progress from representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency, FMC Corp., and an environmental engineering firm on Monday in Front Royal.

The work in progress is the reclamation of the Avtex Superfund site for use as a business and recreational park area. Avtex was closed down in 1989 after state and federal regulatory agencies cited it for multiple violations of environmental protection laws.

After 10 years of federally mandated environmental cleanup at an estimated cost of $63 million, the Town of Front Royal and Warren County governmental bodies are on the verge of purchasing over 400 acres at the Front Royal site through the town-county Economic Development Authority.

The purchase will be made through the bankruptcy trustee overseeing the project pending the approval of the federal bankruptcy court judge presiding over the case in Reading, Pa. A decision is expected after a hearing in Reading on Nov. 23. EDA director Stephen Heavener has said that a contract could be signed at any time after a favorable ruling on Nov. 23, probably in December.

The purchase price includes the forgiving of $1.25 million in back taxes by the county and about $277,000 by the town. Parties involved in the contract include Avtex owner FMC, the federal government, the adjacent Allied/General Chemical property owners, and the bankruptcy trustee Anthony Murray.

On Nov. 15 Front Royal town officials included vice mayor Tony Carter, town manager Richard Anzolut and town planning director Kimberly Fogle were guided through portions of the 125-acre basin area located adjacent to the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

Lying on the western side of the property along a flood plain, this section is earmarked for use as a recreational and park area.

EPA remedial project manager Bonnie Gross and community involvement coordinator Rick Kuhn told town officials on Monday that the EPAís plan is to have the five sulfate basins drained and covered over. The work will be done by FMC and is expected to start in the spring and take slightly over two years to complete.

The water in the basins contains a variety of harmful chemicals and heavy metals including arsenic but supports a variety of wildlife including carp, turtles and ducks.

The largest of the five basins contains water to a depth of 22 feet with an additional six feet of polluted sludge at the bottom.

Kuhn said the site, which also contains mounds of fly ash and other debris, isnít at this point considered a human heath risk by EPA because people are kept away pending completion of the reclamation project, some seven to 10 years down the road.

"They arenít drinking the water," Kuhn pointed out, and are not allowed to hunt or fish in the area.

Queried about the potential health of a flock of ducks floating idly in one of the basins, Kuhn commented, " They arenít doing themselves any good."

Asked whether the ducks could pose a danger to a hunter looking for a meal who happened to shoot one that had flown off the site, Kuhn said that further tests would be necessary to see whether the harmful chemical gathered into the animalís system from the water at the site accumulated in the liver or spread throughout the duckís body.

An ongoing danger comes from the ground water at the site, the EPA officials stated. Gross and Kuhn said that the old Avtex waste-water disposal plant at the basin site will continue to operate and treat all water before releasing it into the river.

During the Multi-Stakeholders Group Workshop later in the day, Kuhn said that fortunately the basin area seems to be in a location where the river deposited materials during flood but did not carry it back into the river.

Further questioned on the matter by members of the Womenís Alliance for Environmental Justice and Renewal, Kuhn stated that it would take "an apocalyptic event... a really, really , nasty event like a 1,000 year flood to keep the EPAís reclamation plan from working.

"And that might not be Front Royalís major concern if something like that were to occur," Kuhn commented.

He added, however, that he was not belittling such concerns, "because they are our concerns too."

Such concerns may be well founded. Front Royal experienced what were termed 500 and 200-year floods within a one-year period in the mid-1900's.

FMC, which is conducting the bulk of the Avtex cleanup under EPA supervision, is the last owner of the Avtex rayon plant located along Kendrick Lane on the northwest side of Front Royal.

First opened in 194- as American Viscose, the plant was initially a heavy contributor to the war effort against Germany and Japan as a producer of materials that went into the manufacture of tires an related products during World War II.

In the 198-s a by-product of Avtexís rayon manufacturing process was used in the production of the O-rings used in the engines of the original NASA space shuttles. It was the failure of an O-ring that was determined to be the cause of the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia that killed five American astronauts in the mid 1980's.

Shortly after that event the already embattled plant was closed down and its nearly 600 acres declared one of the nations largest and most severe environmental disaster areas.

Throughout its existence Avtex was a major regional employer. During its peak eras, Avtex employed from 1,500 to 2,000 people. When it closed in the late 1980s its work force was around 500.