A former owner of the Front Royal rayon factory that became one of Virginia's worst environmental disasters has agreed to spend $60 million cleaning up tons of toxic materials on the Shenandoah River shore site, federal officials said yesterday.
The Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency plan to announce today that FMC Corp. of Chicago, which ran the Avtex Fibers plant on 440 riverfront acres from 1963 to 1976, will pay cleanup costs. The agreement comes 10 years after the manufacturing operation was shuttered following 2,000 pollution violations.
The plant was used to manufacture rayon for tires during World War II and rocket nozzle parts for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1970s and '80s. The site, 90 miles upstream from Washington in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a federal Superfund site that has been a blight to the community and a source of conflict between state and federal officials.
In addition to the cleanup, local officials said they are close to signing a deal to turn over the land to public ownership and eventual development. A hotel, conference center and soccer fields are among the uses planned. However, Warren County officials said yesterday that before all of that can happen, they will need additional grants to complete even more cleanup beyond that covered by the agreement by FMC.
Final cleanup costs are expected to be well over $100 million.
"I would have liked to have seen a quicker resolution," said Matthew Tederick (R), vice chairman of the Warren County Board of Supervisors. "But I'm real happy where we are right now. . . . We're excited that children will be able to play soccer on this property."
The site has been partly cleaned up. The EPA has spent $44 million on the job, $9 million of which FMC has agreed to pay under the agreement.
Federal officials said that the Justice Department today will file a consent decree in U.S. District Court in Roanoke that solidifies the terms of the cleanup, which is expected to take about seven years. The deal calls for FMC to pay to remove piles of asbestos, acres of waste lagoons, storage tanks, soil contaminated with lead, stacks of scrap metals and a host of other contaminants and materials. Problems are pervasive. After the plant closed, tests showed that even ground water under the site and near it had been tainted with phenol, carbon disulfide and heavy metals. About 1,300 people live within three miles of the site.
Tom Kline, a spokesman for FMC, said yesterday that the company was "very pleased to have reached a settlement" with federal officials. The company already has spent $20 million cleaning up the property and treating 1 billion gallons of wastewater. Justice Department officials said FMC recovered some of those costs from federal agencies for which the plant manufactured goods.
Federal regulators said they did not seek more money from FMC because it was not the only polluter at the site. Built by American Viscose Corp., the plant was bought by Avtex from FMC in 1976. After closing the plant 13 years later, Avtex declared bankruptcy and abandoned the property without cleaning up the mess; the company's case remains in bankruptcy proceedings.
"Based on the fact that previous owners of the site were out of business . . . and the fact that FMC has agreed to step up to the plate and perform the future cleanup, we felt that the settlement was fair," said agency spokesman David Sternberg.
Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said federal officials moved too slowly. "The Superfund program has been a disappointment to everyone in terms of the long delays in getting cleanups undertaken," Besa said. "What's really important is that this work get done and that to the greatest extent possible the parties responsible undertake the cleanup, and not the public."
Cristine Romano, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said that federal officials quickly contained contaminants and that cleanup has proceeded as quickly as possible.
"This . . . is a great example of how Superfund works to put once-polluted land into productive use again," Romano said.
Virginia officials had battled with federal officials about who would pay cleanup costs, and former governor George Allen sued the U.S. government for the state's $1.5 million share of cleanup costs, which federal officials ultimately agreed to pay.
Yesterday, Virginia officials praised the agreement.
"We're delighted that EPA and FMC have come together on this plan for the site," said Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources John Paul Woodley Jr. "We hope it will be the beginning of a new day for Front Royal."