A consultant’s report on Burlington’s old Western Electric plant has produced ream upon ream of new data – but no genuine bombshells – about the residual contamination at this former military industrial site.
This report, which was released on May 22, is merely the latest in a series of environmental assessments to examine this one-time weapons production facility, which had once been the beating heart of east Burlington until it closed more than two decades ago.
Measuring in at 2,219 pages, this voluminous document was compiled by Terracon Consultants at the behest of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is currently overseeing the decontamination of this site near the northwest corner of North Church Street and Graham-Hopedale Road.
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Although inextricably linked for many area residents with the defense contractor Western Electric, this defunct manufacturing plant was actually owned by the federal government before it was sold off as surplus in 2004. Even so, the U.S. Army was initially reluctant to accept responsibility for the site’s cleanup until a few years ago, when it knuckled under to pressure from state, local, and federal officials who realized that the task was beyond the facility’s subsequent owners.
In its marching orders to Terracon, the Army Corps of Engineers had asked for up-to-minute data that would close some of the “gaps” left by earlier studies of the site’s post-closure condition. In particular, the Corps wanted more details about a “plume” of chlorinated solvents that previous inquiries had identified in the groundwater.
The Corps also asked Terracon to see how far these contaminants may have spread beyond the facility and assess any potential risk that the toxins may pose to human health and the environment.
Although by no means the final word on these matters, Terracon’s report does seem to have fleshed out the federal government’s understanding of the property’s shortcomings.
Among other things, it has pinpointed one location where contaminants seem to be seeping off the facility’s grounds. It also identifies a patch of polluted soil within the site that seemed ripe for removal, and it offered a measured estimate of the possible danger that this contamination may pose to the community.
Terracon’s findings have also stoked the curiosity of Burlington’s municipal leaders, who have long viewed the plant’s cleanup as a potential catalyst for an economic revival on Burlington’s east side.
“There’s a lot of information in it, and we’re still trying to digest it,” conceded Burlington’s city manager Craig Honeycutt. “Remediation is the responsibility of the federal government. But we want to be as much of a partner as we can [in this process] because this is also a priority for us in the revitalization of east Burlington.”
From boom to bust
In their investigation of the former Western Electric plant, Terracon’s associates had to sift through the remains of nearly a century’s worth of industrial activity that has stamped its imprint on the property’s current condition.
Even before its heyday as a center for military production, this 22-acre property was home to a small textile concern, which began turning out rayon sometime in 1927. The onset of the Great Depression effectively halted this facility’s spindles, and the site became little more than a glorified warehouse until 1942 when it was acquired by an arm of the U.S. government and pressed into service for the Second World War.
The federal government initially leased the site to the Fairchild Engines and Airplane Corporation to produce aircraft for use in the war effort. In 1944, Fairchild’s activities gave way to a brief occupation by Firestone Tires, which had reached the end of the road by 1946. That same year, federal authorities declared the property surplus and made a fateful decision to lease the facility to Western Electric.
Initially, Western Electric used this facility to make consumer electronics, although the dawn of the Cold War soon saw it pivot to more military contracts. By 1951, the company had phased out civilian production entirely to focus on defense-related commissions, such as the manufacture of ground-based guidance systems and other components for the U.S. Army’s Nike missiles. These high-tech products were ultimately enshrined in the federal government’s name for the facility, which it continues to designate as the Tarheel Army Missile Plant in official documents.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the plant continued to fulfill military contracts under AT&T – the corporate successor to Western Electric. The site even had an unspecified role in President Ronal Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” as it was more popularly known at the time. But by the 1990s, the plant was in the throes of a slow and inevitable decline that culminated with its closure under AT&T’s heir Lucent Technologies.
In 2004, the U.S. General Services Administration attempted to auction off the facility as surplus before it finally divested itself of the site in a private sale to a limited liability corporation called Hopedale Investments. Hopedale’s owners used the site for a variety of purposes, including as a flea market to benefit Hospice, before they unloaded the property in 2013. The new owner, Saucier, Inc., eventually put the property back on the market, and in 2018, it was acquired by a limited liability corporation dubbed Central Park Burlington.
Beneath the rust
Since its return to private ownership nearly two decades ago, the former Western Electric plant appears to have gone through a period of gradual decay that’s alluded to in Terracon’s report. In fact, with their mention of “dilapidated buildings” and “leaky and partially collapsed roofs,” the firm’s associates mince no words about the site’s presently dismal condition.
“Portions of buildings are hazardous and not safe to enter due to the conditions of the structure,” the firm’s team continues, “and the presence of underground tunnels and basements and tunnels that do not have lighting, some of which are flooded.”
Terracon goes on to note that, amid all the rust and debris, there are also other, more sinister byproducts of the facility’s former existence as an industrial plant.
Even before Terracon arrived on the scene, it was already clear that the federal government had left behind traces of industrial solvents and other toxins when it washed its hands of the facility in 2004. Many of these contaminants were previously identified by other federal contractors, including a firm called PIKA/Arcadis that issued a report in 2020. In particular, Arcadis’s report described a “plume” of chlorinated solvents that had apparently migrated beyond the facility and slipped into a service creek along North Cobb Avenue.
In order to shed more light on this contamination, Terracon’s associates made several forays to the former industrial site between March and October of 2022.
During their site visits, the company’s team collected surface water samples from the facility’s grounds on three separate occasions. They also gathered 53 soil samples from areas on site that had been exposed to toxic materials, and they obtained “grab groundwater samples” from seven off-site locations “to define the potential extents of the dissolved-phase plume.” They went on to obtain samples from dozens of monitoring wells, and they collected water for testing from either end of a tunnel that runs underneath two of the facility’s buildings.
Closing the gaps
The results of Terracon’s analysis ultimately revealed a complex web of potential hazards on and around the former industrial site.
Thanks to their ground water measurements, the firm’s associates believe they have nailed down the “main discharge point” where the oft-discussed “plume” has made its way into the service creek. The team’s data also suggested that there are other avenues for contamination to enter the creek – either from the grounds of the facility or from adjacent commercial properties.
The team also gleaned some additional insights from the soil borings they obtained from the facility’s grounds. The team took these borings from five carefully-selected locations that had formerly been used for waste disposal or waste transfer or had once housed cleaning equipment which relied on chlorinated solvents. Many of these borings showed elevated levels industrial solvents like tetrachloroethylene or trichloroethylene. Some also contained hazardous metals like arsenic and selenium – although their concentrations were often in line with what one would expect for this part of the state.
The team also identified one spot – a one-time transfer area for waste oil – that appeared to be an epicenter for trichloroethylene contamination. A volatile chemical that’s often used as an industrial solvent, trichloroethylene, or TCE, had apparently saturated the soil within an area of about 370 square feet. The firm estimated that somewhere between 90 and 230 tons of soil would have to be removed to clean up the trichloroethylene in this area.
“These are relatively small volumes that could be excavated quickly and effectively,” the contractor added. “The volume of soil within these regions that might exceed the…thresholds for TCE would likely be significantly smaller than the volumes stated previously.”
Terracon also detected high levels of trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene in several off-site locations where they had been able to sample the groundwater. The distribution of these chemicals suggested that some of the contaminants had migrated off site through the previously identified “main discharge point.” But the data also indicated other “migration pathways,” such as a second “plume” from within the grounds of the Western Electric site – or contamination from other sites in the neighborhood, which has apparently been home to multiple dry cleaning establishments over the years.
Another major find for Terracon’s team was the detection of high levels of both trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethyelene in the aforementioned tunnel. According to Terracon’s team, these measurements suggest that the passageway “intersects the dissolved-phase plume” – which they concluded should give pause to anyone who might want to drain this subterranean cavity.
“The property owner should strongly consider these data prior to dewatering the tunnel,” the report goes on to surmise, “as additional considerations would be necessary prior to extracting the water.”
Terracon also offered other recommendations for the site’s future remediation. The firm’s team noted, for instance, that high level of oxygen in the site’s groundwater wouldn’t generally lend itself to the use of “reductive dechlorination” to break down chlorinated hydrocarbons. But they suggested some techniques that could still be used to drive reductive dechlorination reactions under the circumstances.
To read the full report, click HERE:
In the final analysis, Terracon concluded that the contamination from the former Western Electric plant could potentially pose health risks to people both on site and in the immediate vicinity.
“The human health exposure pathways that present the most concern,” the firm adds, “are on-site exposure to contaminated soil and off-site exposure to surface water.”
In particular, Terracon’s team observed that contaminated soil on site could present hazards to either residents or workers if the property is turned into a mixed use development – a possibility that the current owner has apparently floated. The team also suggested that the water within the tunnels could put visitors at risk,
be they construction workers or trespassers.
The firm found no indication, however, that soil contamination could be breathed in by people off site. Nor did it see any cause for alarm about ecological devastation seeing as the contaminants detected are at least an order of magnitude “below the bench exotoxicity values for both chronic and acute exposure scenarios.”
“Therefore, there is adequate information to conclude that ecological risks at [the Tarheel Army Missile Plant] are negligible, and a baseline risk assessment is not warranted.”