Jeff Jardine

The dirt on all that dirt at the old Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant

In recent weeks, as mounds of dirt piled up next to the Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant along Claribel Road, Debbie Olson began getting phone calls along with an email.

“Some (callers) were angry,” said Olson, executive director of Riverbank’s Local Redevelopment Authority that now operates the ammo plant where shell casings were made from World War II through the first Gulf War.

Built by Alcoa during World War II to produce aluminum for the military, the Army took control of the plant in 1951. At its peak during the Vietnam War, more than 2,000 people worked there. The Army officially deactivated the 173-acre plant in March 2010. The plant, which began converting to an industrial park in the late 1990s, will eventually be deeded over to the city by the feds.

The reason for the recent spate of inquiries?

At least a few people are convinced the dirt is being moved as part of the North County Expressway construction. They suspect the state and county made an arbitrary decision on the final route without completing the public input process. While potential routes have been identified, officials haven’t picked the winner, which, no matter what, will upset someone.

But no matter where it connects with Highway 120/108 east of Oakdale, the expressway likely will go right through the south end of the old ammo plant property and where those piles now sit, Olson said. That Stanislaus County recently opened a new four-lane stretch between Coffee and Oakdale roads, and that likely will be incorporated into the expressway project – and stops about two miles from the ammo plant – certainly supports such thoughts.

“It’s a legitimate question,” she said.

But the expressway isn’t the reason for the dirt piles. They were destined to happen because the Army created quite a mess out there over the decades, including tainting the groundwater with chromium. Filtering and purifying began years ago, but more recently chemists determined that treating the groundwater with iron neutralizes the toxins in the chromium, and so they are now using that technique.

The other problems involved polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, found in many industrial fluids. In the 1950s and ’60s, PCBs were common ingredients in oils used to coat the otherwise dirt parking lot at the south end, project manager Jim McAlister of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said. Or at least he thinks that’s why the chemical is so widespread on that part of the property.

“We say it’s conceptual because there were no records of what went on there in the 1950s and 1960s, in the heyday of the plant,” McAlister said.

What he does know is the Environmental Protection Agency said the PCB-tainted dirt needs to go. Hence, crews have been scraping off the topsoil a foot or two feet deep in most places, deeper in others that test as hotspots. They continually test at these depths until the contaminant no longer is prevalent. The tainted dirt waits beneath black plastic sheeting near the corner of Claus and Claribel roads.

There is no timetable to haul it away, McAlister said, because they want it to dry out as much as possible before trucking it to a disposal facility near Kettleman City, in Kings County. A wet winter will delay the removal. The drier, the lighter.

“We pay by the ton to dump it,” he said. “We’re watching the tax dollars on it.”

The Army also will replace – or pay to replace – the tin siding on the buildings that also is releasing PCBs from coating that has degraded over the decades. Olson, in fact, plans to take a proposal to the City Council that asks the federal government for $42 million for cleanup, which her agency would oversee.

“We see nothing but positives,” she said. “We’ll train and employ local workers.”

Already, numerous businesses call the plant home, and Olson cut deals with some for lower rents in exchange for work on the plant. One installed fiber-optic cables for advanced communication capabilities that will draw more tenants as the property is cleaned up and remodeled. One company handles the high-voltage electricity issues at the plant, while yet another specializes in filtration systems.

So the old ammo plant is seeing some progress. And it will see more once those piles of dirt, PCBs and all, head on down the road.