$200 million later, Army still years from cleaning up JoCo’s Sunflower ammunition plant

Sunflower plant still years away from being cleaned up

View the former Sunflower ammunition plant, one of the area’s largest tracts of land, from the air. The Army on Wednesday, July 17, 2019, presented an update of the cleanup work at the western Johnson County site.
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View the former Sunflower ammunition plant, one of the area’s largest tracts of land, from the air. The Army on Wednesday, July 17, 2019, presented an update of the cleanup work at the western Johnson County site.

Johnson County leaders look at the 9,000 acres south of DeSoto, where a World War II-era ammunition plant once stood, and envision one of Kansas City’s most promising sites for future development.

The U.S. Army still sees its former Sunflower plant as it has for years: as an environmental mine field still years and many dollars away from being safe enough for any practical use.

Army officials updated community members Wednesday on the decades-long, $200 million effort to clean up Sunflower. While work is progressing, they said it isn’t likely to be completed until 2028.

The plant, closed since the early 1990s, produced gunpowder for World War II artillery shells and rocket propellants during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. The work left thousands of acres laced with environmentally hazardous, even explosive, materials.

But the site, which sits on the K-10 corridor that connects Johnson County and Lawrence, is one of the metro area’s single largest tracts of land. That makes it a potential bonanza for developers.

“It’s 9,000 acres of developable property in Johnson County,” said DeSoto City Manager Mike Brungardt. “I think that alone sets this apart from other areas.”

Army contractors have dug up sewer lines, removed contaminated foundations and trucked out loads of unsafe soil. Over the last four years, the Department of Defense has allocated $87 million in contracts and expects to award another $13 million this year, said Ian Thomas, a program manager in the Army’s base realignment and closure division.

The work is complicated and vast. He said crews have identified 172,000 linear feet of sewer piping on the property, all of it to be removed. But the explosive material remains the current priority.

“We have to ensure that the site is safe, and in doing so we are addressing the explosive hazard first,” Thomas said. Explosive work should be finished within the next three years, he said.

Local residents peppered Army leaders with questions Wednesday evening. Some wondered about the impact on local water and air quality. Others asked how the Army was disposing of hazardous materials.

Thomas said some contaminated materials are being burned on site to convert residual explosives into base elements like nitrogen and oxygen. Other debris has been hauled to landfills rated for hazardous materials. Some structures and materials not deemed safety risks will stay on the property.

Dewey Smith, who said he lives near the site, doesn’t believe any amount of clean up will make Sunflower safe.

“They’re going to have to turn it into like Chernobyl,” he said after the meeting. “It’s polluted forever.”

Last year, public officials criticized the slow pace of work at Sunflower. This year, they seem resigned to the years-long timeline.

“They continue to make progress,” said Ed Eilert, chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners. “I think some of us would like to see it completed much sooner, but they are working.”

After a quixotic plan to build an Oz Entertainment amusement park fell through, Sunflower Redevelopment Group acquired the land in 2005 from the Army with plans to tackle the cleanup within ten years. The Army awarded a $109 million grant to remediate the 5,300 acres of contaminated land. But that money was exhausted by 2010 with the job far from complete.

The property languished for five years until the Army agreed to resume and take over the cleanup effort in 2015.

The initial partners in Sunflower Redevelopment were Kansas City-based Kessinger/Hunter & Co. LLC and the International Risk Group, a Denver-based company experienced in developing problem properties. A third firm, Prairie Center Investors LLC of Mission Woods, joined later.

Once remediation is completed, the developers agreement with Johnson County calls for setting aside 3,000 acres for county parkland. County officials envision a residential “community in a park” for the site.

A large portion of Sunflower is not contaminated and some believe it could be developed as other work progresses, Eilert said. But the current agreement requires all remediation to be completed first.

Eilert said the county may consider changing those rules to accelerate development. But he cautioned that it will be a slow process. Even after another eight years of environmental work, the developer may need to remove structures or materials to get the site ready, he said.

“It’s not going to be developed in one year, I’ll put it that way,” Eilert said.

When the time comes to redevelop the land, the city and county may disagree on how to progress.

DeSoto officials envision some commercial development at Sunflower. But rather than a residential community, they believe much of the site is best suited for light industrial use.

“The Army purchased it because it was great property for industrial use,” said Brungardt, the DeSoto city manager, “and we think it might still be a great property for industrial use.”

DeSoto plans to annex the site, he said.

At 15-square miles, Sunflower is about the size of Leawood. That kind of scale evokes visions of big, transformative projects, Brungardt said.

“There could be a home run happen out there. There could be that Amazon HQ2 in the future that brings in thousands of jobs and millions in development that really changes the region,” he said. “Everybody thinks big thoughts and they should. But I think it’s more likely it will come one piece at a time.”

On Wednesday evening in DeSoto City Hall, Army maps illustrated the incremental nine-year plan: shading around the contaminated areas doesn’t disappear until 2028, when the cleanup is projected to finish.

“You might be dead by then,” one woman said to her husband as they examined the images.

Crista Green Tyler, who lives near the site, said she was happy to hear about the Army’s progress.

“We’re progressing,” she said. “Being the impatient people that we are, we always want to see things done quicker and faster.”

But she said speed isn’t her only concern.

“The important thing is that it’s done right,” she said, “and that not only us but our kids and our grand kids are protected.”

Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas