Three years after the U.S. Army resumed environmental cleanup at the former Sunflower ammunition plant, members of the Kansas congressional delegation are pushing hard for faster progress at the massive redevelopment site in western Johnson County.
They know it has huge untapped potential: At 9,000 acres, with 15 square miles, it's about the size of Leawood. It's beautiful ground and is one of the metro area's largest single tracts of land, with space for parks, mixed-use development and even a University of Kansas research center. It’s envisioned as important for growth along the Kansas 10 corridor from Johnson County to Lawrence.
It's also polluted with decades of contaminants from facilities that produced gunpowder for World War II artillery shells and rocket propellants during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
The Army says it's finally making real headway with the cleanup, and part of the land could be ready for development by 2021 or 2022.
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But the Johnson County Commission and congressional officials say that's not good enough. They're particularly concerned with the target date of 2028 to deal with the entire 5,300 acres of contamination.
“This has drug on a very long time,” U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, told Lt. Gen. Gwendolyn Bingham at an April 26 Senate hearing on military construction. “The Army apparently will be at Sunflower for another decade cleaning up the site. It’s just such a long haul.”
Moran urged Bingham, assistant chief of staff for installation management, to visit the site with him. He pressed on her the need to act with more urgency.
She made no promises but said she understood the frustration and pledged to make that visit. Moran’s staff is working to get it scheduled.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas) is also pressuring the Army to speed up its act.
“While acknowledging this is a large and complex project, I urge the Army to expedite their work and complete cleanup at a faster pace than they are currently projecting over the next decade,” Yoder said in a statement. “Johnson Countians deserve to have this land back for productive use in the community rather than having it continue to sit unoccupied for many more years.”
Army officials from Washington and elsewhere visited the site near De Soto on May 2 and put a hopeful spin on what’s being accomplished.
“There has been progress made,” said Tom Lederle, chief of the Army’s base realignment and closure division at the Pentagon. He is overseeing the explosives cleanup that resumed in 2015, after a five-year shutdown. “It’s not all bad news.”
Lederle said environmental remediation is well underway on 1,200 acres at the northeast corner of the site, near West 95th Street and Lexington Avenue. It could be complete by 2020 or 2021, he said, which could set the stage for preliminary development.
Lederle told The Star in an interview that the Army knows the projected 2028 end date is too long for many elected leaders, including the congressional delegation and the Johnson County Commission. He said he and others are looking for every opportunity to expedite the cleanup, and that’s why they’ve focused on that northeast corner that is Sunflower’s highest development priority.
But he said it’s also important to do the job correctly.
Sunflower dates from 1941 and was declared excess in November 1997. In 1998, the Johnson County Commission approved a conceptual plan to develop a model community as a “community in a park.”
Plans for an Oz Entertainment amusement park consumed seven futile years, after which the land was transferred to Sunflower in 2005. At that time, about 3,700 acres were transferred clean, but much of that land was targeted for open space, buffer and parkland.
Sunflower also got a $109 million Army grant to tackle the explosives decontamination and other contaminants cleanup on the remaining 5,300 acres. That money was exhausted by 2010, but the job was far from complete. The property languished for five years until the Army agreed to resume and self-manage the remaining work in 2015.
Much of the painstaking work involves decontamination of sewers where the explosive contaminants were deposited, plus sewer and building foundation removal and dealing with lead, metals, oil, lubricants and other hazards in and around the sewers.
In the past 2 1/2 years, the Army has awarded five contracts valued at $66 million.
While the 1,200-acre northeast sector could be completed in two or three years, the remaining acreage, mostly in the center of the property, still requires significant work. Lederle said the Army calculates that, on top of the $175 million already spent or obligated, about $40 million more will be needed to complete the job.
He said the Army remains committed to the full cleanup as funds become available. But with federal budget uncertainty and continuing resolutions that fund the government on short time frames, it’s hard to anticipate when that money will be appropriated.
While the environmental cleanup proceeds slowly, it is being done correctly, said Margaret Townsend, program manager with the environmental remediation bureau in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The KDHE is the lead environmental regulator on the project.
"From our perspective, they're making very good progress," Townsend said. "They're methodical about what they're doing addressing the contaminants."
Townsend said the Army is following the cleanup process established in law.
"We're trying to assist them as quickly and as efficiently as we can, and they're trying to do the work as quickly and efficiently as they can,” she said.
The current owner of the site, Kansas City-based Sunflower Redevelopment LLC, is monitoring the Army’s progress in hopes of someday being able to privately redevelop the site.
Sunflower Executive Director Kise Randall, who has followed this arduous process since the company acquired the property in 2005, said she’s cautiously encouraged that part of the Army cleanup could be completed in a few years.
She described her current perspective as “hopeful waiting” but didn’t elaborate on what type of development might be possible.
Randall agreed the Army work is being done appropriately but said she appreciated the pressure from the congressional delegation to speed up the process.
“Moran and Yoder have been very attentive,” she said. “This is on their radar. They are trying to make things happen.”
De Soto Mayor Rick Walker, who attended the May 2 stakeholders meeting, was somewhat encouraged by the possibility of some land available before 2028. Some areas would be appropriate for commercial or light industrial development, he said.
“Frankly, there’s some beautiful ground in there,” Walker said. “There would be some very nice areas for residential development. There are also some sites with great access to highways.”
The Johnson County Commission also is agitating for faster action. It’s the top priority on the county’s 2018 federal legislative list.
“If funding is available, there’s no reason that the full clean-up cannot be completed much sooner,” the county said in its legislative action platform.
Commissioner Mike Brown, who represents western Johnson County, including the Sunflower property, said he would like to see the Army fast-track cleanup for portions of the land that could go for parks and streamway trails.
As far as private development, he’s skeptical much of that could occur before the full site is cleaned.
It’s frustrating to watch the federal process sprinkle money among countless Army cleanup sites across the country, Brown said, without making much progress on any of them.
He suggested it’s time to see whether the Army could allocate sufficient funds to a few sites to expedite their completion, based on their economic viability.
He didn’t know where Sunflower would fit in but suggested it could be a high priority based on its location in a prosperous, growing suburban community.
“There is a huge intrinsic value in that 9,000 acres,” Brown said. “Let’s get this going.”