FRONT ROYAL, Va. (AP) — About 800 people were employed at Avtex Fibers when it closed in 1989.
Before it shut down and declared bankruptcy, the company was cited for violating Virginia's environmental laws with wastewater discharges into the Shenandoah River.
Now, on most days, the site has more wildlife than human activity, although redevelopment efforts are under way for parts of what was once one of the region's most polluted hazardous waste sites.
A hawk feather sits in the mud beside the footprints of geese, where ground will be broken in the next couple of weeks on a $30 million groundwater treatment plant on the property — now owned by the Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority.
Tadpoles, frogs, butterflies and beavers now have a place on a large portion of the 460-acre site.
"We have all these different ecosystems that will support the animals that will come here," said John Torrence, site manager for ERM, the contractor overseeing the cleanup since the property's former owner FMC Corp. took over the effort in 1999.
Torrence, who has been working at the site since 1999, was the only full-time ERM employee there Friday. Another 15 to 20 workers were on the site, delivering trailers and dropping off loads of stone.
American Viscose, once one of the world's largest producers of rayon, built a manufacturing plant on the property in 1940.
The company owned the multi-building plant until 1962. From 1963 to 1976, FMC operated there. Avtex was the last owner of the property.
During its history, the plant manufactured fibers such as rayon, polyester and polypropylene.
In 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency added the property to its National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites to be cleaned up under the Superfund program, according to the Avtex Community Homepage website.
FMC, the only former owner of the site still in business, was charged with paying most of the cleanup costs for the property, although federal funding paid for the demolition of the factory buildings.
"The real dangerous place was the old buildings area," Torrence said.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., secured the approximately $22 million it cost to have the Army Corps of Engineers demolish the buildings on the site and remove the asbestos within, an effort that lasted from 2000 until 2006.
Since then, Torrence said, FMC has gone above and beyond the EPA's requirements to clean up the site.
"If you plant a meadow filled with flowers, butterflies will come, and they did," he said.
The 14,400-square-foot plant will take about 18 months to construct and will treat 125 gallons per minute of groundwater and leachate — liquid waste viscose that was deposited into 11 basins on the property while fibers were manufactured there.
Torrence said he did not know the amount FMC has spent on the cleanup efforts, but said it has cost the company "tens of millions of dollars."
Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal suggested creating a meadow with native grasses to enhance the ability of animals to procreate. FMC spent millions of dollars on grass seed alone to create the meadow, Torrence said.
The meadow and groundwater treatment plant are on 240 acres of the property that will be used for passive recreation — including hiking and biking trails.
A pond has been created on the property where a basin was once filled with zinc sulfate sludge. Beavers have made two lodges near the pond.
"This is a good example of where we're going on the whole place," Torrence said.
FMC is responsible for maintaining that 240 acres and the groundwater treatment plant there in perpetuity, Torrence said, even though the EDA owns the property.
Another 160 acres where the factory buildings were located is being marketed for development once the cleanup is completed and the EPA issues a letter of "no further interest." The goal is to obtain the letter from the EPA in 2013, Torrence said.
Warren County owns about 32 acres that were originally part of the property. That land is occupied by soccer fields and a skate park.
While Superfund cleanup sites tend to be gated and closed to the public for safety reasons, visitors are welcome at the Avtex site by appointment.
Torrence has given tours to students studying environmental stewardship as well as delegations of representatives from other countries studying environmental cleanup efforts in the United States.
Jennifer McDonald, director of the Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority, said prospective buyers have been looking at the property where the factory buildings were located, which is zoned industrial by the town government.
The EDA is working with the EPA and Department of Justice to have some of the restrictive covenants on the property revised before it is sold.
McDonald said the land will never be used for residential housing, schools, day-care centers, hospitals or anything requiring an overnight stay. It could be used for restaurants, office buildings or light industrial business.
"What we had hoped for is that one developer would come in here and purchase the entire parcel and develop it into a mixed-use development, but it could be subdivided," McDonald said.
If the EPA issues its letter of no further interest next year, the EDA can sell the land, but McDonald could not predict a timeline for redevelopment there.
"We're trying to meet with prospects now just so we can possibly get some lined up for when we do get that letter, but that doesn't mean it will happen quickly."