December 21, 2013

Army funds advancing cleanup at ex-Riverbank ammo plant

Part of the defunct Army ammo plant in Riverbank has been transformed into a bustling industrial park with 34 businesses. With Army cleanup money, crews are making room for more companies and the expansion of current ones, creating more jobs.

In a way, it’s a good thing that 1,600 tons of obsolete missile-making equipment is contaminated.

If it weren’t coated with potentially dangerous stuff, the Army wouldn’t pay $40 million to get rid of it. All those tons of World War II-era assembly lines would continue to rust in acres of idle warehouses at the former ammunition plant on Claus Road.

Part of the defunct factory has been transformed into a bustling industrial park with 34 businesses making things such as security doors and electric skateboards. With Army cleanup money, crews are making room for Riverbank to lure more companies and allow existing ones to expand, creating more jobs.

“We’re keeping people working in Riverbank. It’s definitely a plus for the community,” said City Manager Jill Anderson.

Nearly 300 employees at the site, now called the Riverbank Industrial Complex, are believed to be in no more cancer danger than anyone else. But the bad stuff could harm birds and other wildlife, so the safest thing is to dismantle and haul away an estimated 8,000 pieces of equipment left behind when the Army stopped making shell, grenade and mortar cartridges several years ago.

The bad stuff is polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, which causes cancer in animals and probably would in humans exposed to great quantities. When the plant went up some seven decades ago, crews installed aluminum siding coated with galbestos, an asphalt-asbestos substance providing protection against corrosion, in 12 huge buildings representing about half of the plant’s 700,000 square feet of roofed area. In its heyday, the plant had 3,500 workers and was one of the largest employers in Stanislaus County.

With time, galbestos exfoliates, similar to skin, coating whatever is inside a building. It tends to adhere to painted surfaces. After much testing, experts said it doesn’t pose a threat to human health, but they characterize the equipment as an environmental threat worthy of hauling to a landfill.

The city of Riverbank, recognizing the site’s potential for job creation, formed the Riverbank Local Redevelopment Authority and made plans to take over the property. The Army agreed to let the authority pick through the estimated 1,600 tons of contaminated equipment rather than junk it.

With an initial installment of $10.6 million, crews a few weeks ago began the huge process of setting aside reusable equipment for cleaning, and piling up that which can’t be reused. Some can be sold for scrap value and the rest will go to the dump.

Reusable equipment includes cranes and forklifts. Metal presses that once shaped shell casings can be given new dies to produce frying pans, gun barrels and more.

“(Much) is worth saving,” said Debbie Olson, the authority’s executive director.

A contractor, Weston Solutions, gave 32 people temporary full-time jobs for the cleanup effort, expected to last about six months, although many could stay on for future phases lasting three years. That work will include removing the offending siding, replacing it and demolishing some buildings that aren’t suitable for incoming businesses.

Complying with city requirements, Weston trained 12 unemployed Riverbank residents, some of whom earned special environmental certifications, and ended up hiring six.

Although the cleanup seems expensive – who couldn’t find a better use for $40 million? – it’s cheap compared with other military facilities where contractors confronted unexploded ordnance, gunpowder and cancer-causing radon gas.

The Local Redevelopment Authority deals only with the ammo plant and should not be confused with a city redevelopment agency that became entangled with the Del Rio Theatre and defaulted on bonds earlier this year.

Eventually, the ammo plant’s land title will pass from the Army to the city – it’s impossible to pinpoint when, Olson said, because potential federal sequestration could delay the transfer process, but it might happen in the next few months.

Underground water at the plant was contaminated with chromium and cyanide by a previous landfill there. The Army began pumping from the aquifer in 1991 and cleaning it and expects to continue that $15 million process for several more years.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to save dozens of millions of dollars by avoiding unsafe practices in the first place?

“You have to let it go,” Olson said. “We keep an eye on the vision for the future. We’re polishing (the plant) into something the community can be proud of.”

Without the Army’s money, Olson said, much of the plant not occupied by tenants would attract graffiti and vagrants, at best, and at worst could have become another Indalex horror. That’s a reference to the abandoned aluminum plant north of Modesto that was ravaged by scavengers in 2011 and was mostly ignored by sheriff’s deputies who could not identify an owner responsible for the site.

In other words, it’s a good thing, in a way, that the Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant was contaminated. Without the Army’s cleanup money, Olson said, “This would have been blight for eternity.”

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