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U.S. Army bivouacs at Burlington rec center to brief residents on Western Electric cleanup

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The U.S. Army let down its guard for a few hours on Thursday to give area residents the lowdown on the ongoing cleanup of the former Western Electric facility in Burlington.

Officially known as the Tarheel Army Missile Plant, this 22-acre site off of Graham-Hopedale Road is bound up in the minds of many long-time residents with the military contractor Western Electric, which had operated the facility during its heyday a half century ago.

It was the Army, however, that actually owned the plant throughout its six-decade run, which ended shortly before the federal government decided to wash its hands of the property in 2004. Two years ago, the military resumed its connection with the facility due to the lingering presence of industrial contaminants that have prevented a succession of private owners from restoring the plant to productive use.

[Story continues below photo.]

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Burlington resident Michaelle Graybeal talks with Paul Humphrey with the U.S. Army about some of the cleanup issues at the former Western Electric site in east Burlington.

On Thursday, the Army and its allies in the cleanup took over Burlington’s Fairchild Recreation Center in order to hold a field briefing, of sorts, for the general public. This “open house” ultimately drew a steady stream of civilians to the rec center’s gym, where a series of information stations offered details about various steps in decontamination process. Visitors could also glean additional insights from officials with Army Corps of Engineers, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, and other organizations, who were on hand to answer their questions.

At one station, visitors could chat with Bri Clark of the Army Corps of Engineers to learn more about trichloroethylene, or TCE, which has been implicated in the contamination at Western Electric.

“TCE is a degreaser that was used in many industries,” Clark recalled during one such conversation that afternoon, “and it was used in plating at this facility.”

Clark went on to describe how the Corps of Engineers recently oversaw the excavation of about 500 tons of contaminated soil from a section of the former Western Electric plant where TCE had been extensively used. Yet, the removal of this dirt was by no means the cue to declare “mission accomplished,” as the Army still has to deal with the vestiges of this chemical that have seeped into the groundwater.

Among the foremost tasks that remain in the cleanup is the containment of this groundwater “plume,” which consultants in the Army’s employ have been carefully monitoring.

Visitors to Thursday’s event could get the inside scoop about this ongoing effort from Ethan Dinwiddie with Terracon, an environmental contractor that has been called in to track the spread of the groundwater contamination. Dinwiddie was particularly eager to reassure his interlocutors that the TCE from the plume doesn’t appear to pose any danger to the homes near the decommissioned industrial site.

“The homes in the area have received at least one soil gas sample,” he told one couple who paused at his station on Thursday, “and none of them showed any contamination in the soil and gas.”

Other stations at Thursday’s open house provided information about the discovery of PFAS beneath the former Western Electric site, a timeline for the Army’s ongoing remediation work, and the prospects for the facility’s redevelopment once the cleanup is finished.

Residents who want to be directly involved in the effort could also sign up for updates about a restoration advisory board that the Army proposes to set up in the community. The roster for this board already boasted nearly a dozen signatures within the first 20 minutes of Thursday’s event.

Among those who found their curiosity piqued by this opportunity was Michaelle Graybeal, a long-time Burlington resident who acknowledged that she had come to the open house with distinctly modest expectations.

“I just wanted to know what they had to say,” she told The Alamance News that afternoon.

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