Sunflower cleanup is an explosive endeavor
Chemicals used to make cannon and rocket propellants during World War II now lie in and around buildings at the Sunflower Ammunition Plant.
These chemicals including nitrates, nitrocellulose, nitroguanidine, nitroglycerine and lead sit dormant, contaminating sewer pipes, holding ponds, and surrounding soil.
Just how hazardous they are depends on whom you ask. While the U.S. Army has acknowledged the danger of these chemicals, others would argue the chemicals don't hurt humans.
"I've worked here day in and day out since 1975 and I've never known anyone to get sick," said Thomas Stutz, an army installation manager at Sunflower.
Regardless, before the land becomes under local jurisdiction, it has to be cleaned. Alliant Techsystems has been contracted by the federal government to rid the area of the chemicals and asbestos.
The safety of this land is one of the biggest hurdles facing a deal to bring the Wonderful World of Oz theme park to the area. Before it can become a reality, the hazardous chemicals need to be removed properly.
Part of the cleanup process involves the burning of the production buildings.
The ground near production buildings is sprinkled with what looks like "orange and black wafers," said Randy Carlson, project manager of the Sunflower site for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
The danger of these toxic wafers is uncertain. While they're not bombs, Carlson said they were "shock sensitive." And he doesn't recommend smoking in the area.
"You wouldn't want to catch them on fire because they'd burn real fast," Carlson said.
"It was, 'Oh, my gosh! It blew up!' and maybe some other expletives were used," said Stutz, who witnessed the first production building being burned last year. "Material flew and there was a large fireball that blew out of it."
The unexpected blasts are why the army wants to oversee explosive cleanup, Stutz said. No matter what happens with Oz, the army will dispose of all explosives.
Once a production building finishes burning, crews sort and sell the scrap metal and put the asbestos in special containers. Some weeks, as many as 40 semi-trucks filled with a total of 1,700 tons of lead and/or asbestos roll out of the plant.
Oz officials would have to take charge of the removal of the contaminated soil. Weather has caused chemicals to matriculate into the soil over the last 50 years, Carlson said. In addition, Stutz said dangerous chemicals might remain in the ash after a production building burns.
One solution is to dig a 6-inch to 2 1/2-foot soil layer, depending on contamination depth, mix the soil with cement, which binds the dangerous chemicals permanently and increases soil volume 15 to 20 percent, and then haul the cement to a landfill.
Two sites being cleaned in such a manner now have required the removal of 36,000 tons of contaminated dirt. Carlson said there are about 100 more sites, with varying degrees of clean up required.
Carlson said in some areas, the lead concentration is 3,000 parts per million. The Kansas norm is 10 to 20 parts per million.
However, Alliant Techsystems has workers follow safety regulations that a tourist to the Wonderful World of Oz might not. Jill Stark, who worked as an office assistant for Alliant Techsystems, said she was required to wear a hard hat and steel-toed, wattage- and puncture-resistant boots whenever she went outside.
The company also offered her free CPR and first-aid training.
"They take every single safety precaution you can think of," Stark said.
Stutz added that a few measuring instruments did detect radioactive material.
"We're talking just absolutely minute amounts," Stutz said. "People needn't be worried about that."
What is a worry for Stutz are the sewer pipes caked with contaminated sledge.
"That's going to be a challenge to get those pipes decontaminated," he said.
He put a notice in the Commerce Business Daily, a federal government publication, asking for ideas about how to remove the dangerous mud. He says without a better idea, the pipes will be ignited with a detonation cord.
Oz spokesman David Westbrook said if Oz acquires the land, the company has plans to hire the IT Corporation to clean up the 9,000 plus acres. IT Corporation's Web site says it uses a mixed waste treatment process that "integrates thermal desorption, gravity separation, water treatment, and chelant extraction technologies," to treat contaminated soils. IT's methods have been used on various wastes from the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense, and commercial sites.
For now, the army's contractor is plugging away. In some places, junk piles and contaminated soil are gone and grass seed is planted. The clean acres look great, Stutz said. "It looks like a golf course out there. It's a good process and it's working."