Staff photo by Lynne Hermansen
The first update in three years for the Sunflower Army Ammunition plant was presented at a public forum Wednesday, July 21.
U.S. Army base closure personnel responsible for the clean up process gave the public details on the remediation of the soil, water, buildings and drainage pipes that had been contaminated from decades of manufacturing high explosives at the site.
The plant South of K-10 in DeSoto closed in 1997 and is expected to still take another six years for clean up. It was transferred to the Sunflower Redevelopment Limited Liability Company in 2005.
$109 million was originally dedicated for clean up. In 2015, the Army began a new $170 million strategy after learning the initial amounts were insufficient to make the thousands of acres environmentally safe for development.
The Army has been cleaning up the site in a 12 year process helping remove explosive and rocket propellant remains.
Ian Thomas, program manager with the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure entity, said it was their goal to inform the public on progress of their cleanup efforts.
“A lot of money has been spent at the site, but the real takeaway from this is that we are getting after the remediation,” he said. “We’re doing our level best to return the property to a state where it can be reused.
Thomas was joined by Scott Smith, BRAC site manager and Kathy Baker, project manager.
Thomas said it was the Army who was ultimately responsible for the clean up and insure all explosives are removed from the site. They had to identify certain compounds for remediation.
“Our current focus is to decontaminate first and then environmental cleanup,”he said. “This is why it has taken so long.”
The Army has been collaborating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas Department of Health and Environment and contractors since 2015.
DeSoto residents have been concerned about the chemical residue seeping into the ground and water for the 50 years the site was in operation and the years since its closure.
Smith said their work had involved digging up sewer pipes and contaminated concrete. They burned solid materials on concrete pads in large outdoor fires fueled by wooden pallets.
“The sewers are flashed and heated to a certain level to make sure they don’t have explosives associated with them,”he said. “As the pallets burn they create enough heat it decontaminates.”
Smith said some of the debris that can’t be reused is transported to the Johnson County landfill and hazardous waste is shipped to out-of-state facilities.
Thomas said no further corrective action was required on 14 of the 92 sites and work on contaminated soil and pollution in above ground buildings and below ground pipes could be completed in 2028.
The challenge is the hazardous materials that got into the structures, soil and ground water, he said. Clean up has involved exhaustive soil samples and building demolition required for state and federal regulations.
Thomas said It also involved taking some of the buildings down, removing the slabs, removing the footings, removing the walls and the sewers inside and outside the buildings.
Governor Laura Kelly recently announced Panasonic is building a $4 billion electric vehicle battery production facility on a section of the former Sunflower plant.
Thomas said the Army will remain for 20 to 30 years after the main clean up has been completed for any surprise remediation needs that might occur, but the land will ultimately be the new landowner’s responsibility.
“We don’t have the authority to answer specific Panasonic questions,”he said. “We don’t have the authority to answer for the land owner. Our priority is the Northeast corner.”
Thomas said the EPA and the Department of Defense were committed to looking into the PFAs.
The Army’s war needs for the site ceased in 1992 and Thomas said they no longer have a need for that process and mission.
“We have to return it back in a way that it’s usable for whoever has it next,”he said.
The federal government earmarked $279 million for pollution removal. Their increased focus is on groundwater and creek damage mostly towards the center, Thomas said, especially because waste fluids had been deposited in ponds on the site.
However, he said, they hadn’t tested the groundwater for PFAs yet, and they were still in the preliminary assessment stages.
Thomas said they were looking for 50 people interested for a Restoration Advisory Board.
The RAB provides the community the opportunity to be involved with site specific cleanup and environmental restoration. It is a cross section of government officials and a cross section of residents voluntarily representing their community.
“It’s an opportunity to influence the Army’s decisions,”he said.
On Thursday, DeSoto City Council passed two ordinances for TIF Districts related to the Sunflower site after two public hearings.
Rick Walker, mayor, said there had been a lot of community interest in the north end parcel where Panasonic will be built and they wanted to gather input for local incentive considerations to “generate revenue” on a blighted property as it would be the “poster child” for individual project plans.
“It is not lost on us that there are more questions on the impacts of the economic development,”he said. “We have the same concerns.”
Walker said they are beginning to actively engage with Panasonic’s team.
“We don’t have a lot of answers right now,”he said. “There will be more answers coming in the future.”
Walker said KDOT announced they were taking over traffic improvements for the site and putting $26 million towards improvements. Johnson County Board of Commissioners next meeting will be discussing investing a $7.5 million incentive and building a new fire station.
Mike Thompson, Kansas 10th District Senator, said they should take a step back and ask the hard questions.
“We weren’t able to at the State level,” he said. “It wasn’t properly vetted and we didn’t have the full information.”
Thompson said the Panasonic project will be 13 percent of the State’s General Fund.
“If it is such a great business model why are taxpayers taking all the risks. It is a huge burden on taxpayers. Where is the demand for electric vehicles. What is the long term viability. Toxic issues. Human health,”he said. “Don’t make the same mistakes at the city level. Businesses can’t find people to work and now Panasonic is competing against them.”
Thompson said they should focus on keeping local businesses open.
“Make them have skin in the game,”he said. “Hold them accountable. Decisions made today won’t be held accountable.”
One local resident said they had been in DeSoto all their lives and told the site could never be cleaned up.
“But now all of a sudden we can,”they said. “I pray it is not a done deal.”
Thompson said Gardner wasn’t receiving the same type of business subsidies and how was DeSoto going to expand schools.
“If it fails and the demand isn’t there, we are left holding the bag of infrastructure.”he said. “We talk about wanting jobs—level the playing field. Low property taxes. Make Kansas more appealing. If one company fails then taxpayer money is down the drain.”
Thompson said he also had concerns about the safety of the site.
“We are going to build on top while it is still being cleaned up,”he said. “Does this absolve the Army of the clean up. If Panasonic fails who takes over. Why put citizens on the hook for more. If it is such a great deal why are we bending over backward. The government shouldn’t be in the economic development business. I urge you to get this better than us.”
The City of DeSoto said the TIF district money doesn’t take away from residents’ property taxes and the increased revenue is used by the developer for infrastructure.
They said they are motivated to diversify the tax base so they can grow, reduce taxes and increase public services and make life nicer in DeSoto.