Dreams of building at a massive abandoned ammo plant in Johnson County are far off

The remains of a safety sign stand under water towers at the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant near De Soto. A new timeline pushes back redevelopment of the land to 2028.
The remains of a safety sign stand under water towers at the old Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant near De Soto. A new timeline pushes back redevelopment of the land to 2028.

Five years after suddenly halting environmental cleanup at the 15-square-mile Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, the U.S. Army is preparing to resume work removing pollutants so the land can be redeveloped.

That’s welcome news for Kansas and Johnson County officials, who see the property — the largest single tract of potentially developable land in greater Kansas City — as key to growth along the Kansas 10 corridor linking Johnson County with Lawrence.

But the news was tempered by the Army’s projected timeline for finishing a job that began in the 1990s.

It could be 2028 or beyond, The Star has learned, before the first house, shop or office could be built on those 9,000-plus acres near De Soto. That’s far longer than local officials anticipated when they set out their vision in 1998 of building a “community in a park” on a tract of land the size of Leawood.

“That’s a long time, based upon everything that has gone on before,” said Ed Eilert, chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, after hearing about the timeline. “Too long.”

The cleanup was supposed to have been finished three years ago, according to the schedule set by the private developer that bought the land from the government in 2005.

By now, new residential and commercial areas would have been under construction on prairie acres where defense workers once produced gunpowder for artillery shells in World War II and rocket propellants during Vietnam. It shut down finally in the early 1990s.

Research facilities for Kansas’ two flagship universities are planned for the property too, while some 2,000 acres along the site’s perimeter are set aside as parkland.

But a project long delayed has been delayed even longer by a lack of funding and bureaucratic infighting on the federal and state levels. The prolonged lack of activity had the clickbait website Thrillist recently adding Sunflower to its list of “The 28 Most Insane Abandoned Places in the Midwest.”

And even 2028 might be conservative for completing the cleanup. That’s because the Army has so far refused to accept responsibility for removing asbestos in buildings, as well as pesticides in the soil around their foundations.

The Army insists that work is the responsibility of the current property owner, Sunflower Redevelopment LLC, but the developer says that’s unfair and the Army bears responsibility for some of those costs too.

“We’re not looking for a free ride here,” said Sunflower Redevelopment’s attorney, John Petersen at the Polsinelli law firm.

But unless the Army changes its position, Petersen said, his client might have no choice but to walk away without finishing the project it started in 2005 to great fanfare.

“We might have to say, ‘Hey, (Army), it’s all yours again,’ ” Petersen said.

By law, the Defense Department is responsible for cleaning up the messes it makes at its facilities, even after transferring inactive properties to new owners, public or private.

But there’s only so many tax dollars to go around. According to the Pentagon, its environmental and disposal liabilities totaled $58.6 billion at the end of the 2014 fiscal year. Of that, $54.9 billion was unfunded.

The pace of cleanup at former defense facilities can be slow under the best of circumstances. But at Sunflower, it’s been made slower by the ongoing dispute between the Army and state and federal environmental regulators over how much cleanup is required, as well as the dispute between the Army and Sunflower Redevelopment.

“This has been one bureaucratic mess after another,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, the Republican who represents Johnson County in Congress.

“First, it was the EPA moving the regulatory goalposts, and now it’s become unclear whether the Army is willing to work with Sunflower Redevelopment to make good on its promise to clean up this property.”

In response to the criticism, the Army says it is working hard to fulfill its obligations and is coordinating cleanup activities with Sunflower Redevelopment LLC’s development objectives in mind. For instance, it’s focusing first on the acres that Sunflower would like to develop first.

But for now, the Army is not budging on the asbestos and pesticides issues and claims to have the support of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment when it says that those are Sunflower Redevelopment’s responsibility.

A spokesman for the health department, the lead agency in this case, did not address that point directly. But he said there might be flexibility in the requirements.

The department’s assessment of the cleanup requirements, spokesman Ashton Rucker said, is “ongoing to determine how robust cleanup efforts will need to be and what kind of measures will need to be taken.”

Big dreams

When Johnson County commissioners approved their conceptual plan for the decommissioned ammo plant in 1998, they saw it as a rare opportunity to plan a model community.

“Parkland and green space would weave its way through the 9,000-acre development near De Soto,” according to a 1998 article in The Star, “with space for single- and multifamily residences, light industry, a highway commercial center, and research and technology centers. A town center would serve as a prominent centerpiece.”

Then-Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius endorsed that vision when she announced the sale to Sunflower Redevelopment seven years later after a controversial proposal to build an Oz amusement park took the planning process on a tortuous detour.

“After years of negotiations and false starts,” she said then, “I am excited to announce today that an agreement has been reached that will transform the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant into a powerful engine for economic growth in northeast Kansas.”

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 like Sunflower. A third company, Prairie Center Investors LLC of Mission Woods, joined later.

Their aim was to complete the cleanup project that the Army had started within seven years, administering a $109 million federal contract that would fund the work.

Afterward, the plan was for Sunflower Redevelopment to pay the government fair value for the remediated land and make the community-in-a park dream become reality.

But when the federal money ran out in 2010, the job wasn’t close to being finished.

“There was just a lot more out there than anyone anticipated,” Petersen said.

The main contaminants were lead and propellant components such as nitrocellulose, nitroglycerin and nitroguanidine. It was in the buildings, soil and groundwater.

By the end of 2010, Sunflower Redevelopment had hauled 787,657 tons of contaminated dirt to the Johnson County Landfill — some 34,000 truckloads — and it was not even half done.

The Army and Sunflower had originally estimated 612,621 tons for the total.

Faced with spending perhaps another $100 million during the height of the economic downturn, the Army decided to regroup on how to proceed.

Now that work is set to resume, and this time the Army will take the lead.

Recently, it granted $21 million in contracts to three companies, including locally based Burns & McDonnell, for the first phase of a three-phase remediation effort, said Kristina Curley, risk communication specialist at the Army’s Environmental Command at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

This first phase is merely for planning and documenting the work left to do, so the Army doesn’t know what it will cost to finish the job, Curley said.

But the department has a rough idea of how long it will take.

“Depending on the technical and budget challenges encountered during cleanup,” Curley wrote in response to The Star’s written questions, “the Army estimates that the work will be accomplished over the next seven to twelve years.”

After completing the cleanup of contaminants linked to the production of munitions, the Army wants to leave Sunflower Redevelopment with the responsibility of safely removing asbestos from the buildings still standing on the site, as well as removing the soil around them that was contaminated by pesticides.

Petersen estimates that could cost $54 million, and perhaps more as buildings deteriorate while the Army is finishing its work. He said Sunflower Redevelopment is willing to invest more than half of that total. But his client would lose money on the deal, he said, if it had to pick up the entire tab and pay fair market value for the property.

A recent appraisal set the value for the 6,000-some acres that Sunflower Redevelopment would end up with at $15 million after cleanup.

Ultimately, the county government will have to get involved. Under the development agreement, the county requires that all the land be cleaned to residential standards before a single acre is developed. Otherwise, Eilert said, a few hundred acres might get developed and the rest likely fenced off for eternity.

“That’s not viable,” he said.

But the county would be willing, Eilert said, to discuss a cost-savings move suggested by the Army that would allow contractors to build a landfill on the site where the contaminated soil can be dumped. There are already a few landfills on the site from decades ago, but they were not sealed properly, so a new landfill in some isolated corner of the property might help address that problem.

Eilert said the county is willing to do whatever it can, within reason, to push the project forward.

“It’s an important property,” he said. “K-10 is going to be a major development corridor, and the lack of that property being cleaned up is going to inhibit that growth.”

Mayor Tim Maniez of De Soto also wishes the cleanup were done and his city could move forward with its plans.

De Soto owns the water treatment plant at Sunflower and sees the land as a potential source of growth for the Johnson County economy and his community in particular.

“Nobody has that kind of land available in that large of area for development,” he said. “It’s been part of our heritage, and I think it’s just a natural extension of De Soto.”

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks

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