U.S. Army outlines progress of environmental remediation at Kansas explosives plant

Panasonic’s deal to build $4 billion vehicle battery plant illustrates value of cleanup

By: - July 21, 2022 9:38 am
Ian Thomas, Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant clean-up manager with the U.S. Army's Base Realignment and Closure entity, spoke Wednesday at a public meeting in De Soto about the lengthy soil and water remediation process designed to result in reuse of the property in Johnson County. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Ian Thomas, Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant clean-up manager with the U.S. Army’s Base Realignment and Closure entity, spoke Wednesday at a public meeting in De Soto about the lengthy soil and water remediation process designed to result in reuse of the property in Johnson County. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

DE SOTO — U.S. Army base closure personnel responsible for the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant offered Wednesday the first update in three years on costly remediation of soil, water, buildings and drainage pipes contaminated by decades of manufacturing high explosives.

The Army’s work has been of keen interest to De Soto residents who are aware that chemical residue migrated into the environment during the 50-year life of the ordnance facility, but annual face-to-face briefings were interrupted by COVID-19. The general public was reminded of the ongoing cleanup after Panasonic announced it would build a $4 billion vehicle battery production facility linked to 4,000 jobs on a remediated section of the Sunflower property.

Colorful posters surrounding the De Soto City Hall meeting room depicted the Army’s past seven years of intervention to deal with lingering pollution that had impeded redevelopment.

“A lot of money has been spent at the site, but the real takeaway from this is that we are getting after the remediation,” said Ian Thomas, the Sunflower project manager with the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure entity. “We’re doing our level best to return the property to a state where it can be reused.”

The Army has collaborated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and a collection of contractors since 2015 to eradicate pollutants.

Scott Smith, the BRAC site manager for Sunflower, said part of the work involved digging up sewer pipes and concrete contaminated with explosives. On concrete pads at the former installation, he said, solid material has been burned 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 explosive associated with them,” Smith said. “As the pallets burn, they create enough heat it decontaminates.”

He said small debris had been transported to the Johnson County landfill, but hazardous waste was shipped to out-of-state facilities. Treated concrete has been been set aside during the process for future use by developers, he said.

Thomas said no more corrective action was required on 14 sites scattered across the property. Work to deal with contaminated soil and pollution in above-ground buildings and below-ground pipes could be finished in 2028, he said. The Army’s focus will increasingly address damage to groundwater and creeks on the old military installation, he said. While in production, he said, waste fluids were deposited in ponds on base.

“We are responsible because we used the plant for a particular mission all those years ago. The Army is ultimately responsible for the cleanup,” Thomas said.

The federal government so far earmarked $279 million to remove pollution related to production of more than 500 million pounds of ordnance propellants during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War. A modernization of the plant completed in the 1970s allowed manufacture of high explosive nitroguanidine for the military. The facility was again idled in 1992 and was closed by the Army in 1997.

Initially, $109 million was dedicated to remediation of Sunflower, but that investment was insufficient to complete the work. In 2015, the Army launched an updated $170 million strategy to make thousands of acres environmental safe for development. It’s not clear whether the U.S. Department of Defense has funding to continue remediation at Sunflower past 2025, officials said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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