Salina, KS -
Smiles pierced protective masks as Salina leaders pioneered another huge leap toward solving a colossal community problem.
After unanimous votes at a June 24 joint meeting, officials with Salina Public Entities — the city, school district, Kansas State University and airport authority — moved toward resolution in an important battle during a nearly 22-year squabble with the United States of America.
The SPE is on track to secure a settlement worth nearly $68 million to clean up a military mess in western Salina.
It was “a significant day in Salina,” said Alan Eichelberger, airport authority board chairman, when the SPE signed the consent agreement.
Those were key moments since negotiations began in 2007, he said.
“These Salina Public Entities invested their time, talent and organizational funding to keep the project moving forward until this agreement was consummated,” Eichelberger said.
Much praise was showered on local civic leaders from Tim Rogers, executive director of the Salina Airport Authority, for decades of solidarity. He led the meeting.
“Thank-you for the teamwork and partnership that it took to arrive at this significant milestone,” Rogers said. “I don’t think the federal government thought we could do it.”
Salina Mayor Mike Hoppock turned the spotlight on Rogers.
“A lot of thank-you’s need to go to Tim Rogers,” Hoppock said. “You spearheaded this and we appreciate everything you’ve done.”
The man who stood strong against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from the beginning, humbly responded after a round of applause.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be of service to all of you,” he said. “The focus has always been a safe and healthy environment for the community.”
Great Plains Manufacturing Convention Hall
of the Tony’s Pizza Events Center, the SPE approved a consent decree with the federal government, settling claims associated with environmental contamination at the former Schilling Air Force Base that was used by the Department of Defense starting in the 1940s.
The same land and most of the buildings now encompass the Salina Regional Airport and Airport Industrial Center.
The base closed in 1965, but left behind years of pollution, primarily from the solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, in the soil and groundwater. It is creeping, ever so slowly, toward city water wells.
A carcinogen, TCE was used as a degreaser to wash aircraft and weapons at the base.
The water wells are not in immediate danger, city officials have stressed over the years, but their aim is to eliminate the underground plumes.
Sometime during the late summer, when a “lump sum” of $65.9 million in federal funds find their way to Salina, the legal battle will be over and plans for cleanup will commence.
Counting $1.8 million already in hand, Salina Public Entities will have $68 million to clean up the mess.
“In exchange for that, the U.S. asked for a walk-away deal with no reopeners,” said Andy Davis, the SPE’s environmental attorney, speaking by conference call.
“They will not participate or be involved in cleanup in any way. They will basically wash their hands of the site,” he said. “The (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) is done with the site. The U.S. is protected from additional claims.”
Of the $68 million, $10.775 million is available to cover “unforeseen costs,” said Mike Schrage, city manager. “If we don’t have contingencies that exceed the budget, we may be able to complete the project with the funds received.”
Situations can change because of project size, Mayor Hoppock said, but chances are good the cleanup will stay under budget.
“We really believe the federal funding will be sufficient,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to raise the city mill levy in order to help pay for the remediation.”
Kansas Department of Health and Environment will oversee the cleanup and Dragun Corp., of Farmington, Mich., will likely serve as the effort’s environmental engineering and consulting firm. Dragun experts have been testing contamination levels for years and will continue through the design of a remediation plan and the cleanup work.
Soon it will be “time to do the fun stuff,” said Martha Tasker, Salina director of utilities, who will serve as project manager.
“I’m excited to get the project going and actually solve the problem,” she said. “We’ve been gathering data for several years.”
But first, the decree must be signed by the Department of Justice and U.S. District Court, Kansas.
As early as August when the federal funds arrive and remedial plans can be finalized, cleanup can begin, Davis said.
“All pieces of the puzzle are coming together,” he said. “SPEs will continue to control the site and cleanup.”
Davis added that the entities will be protected by specialized environmental insurance coverages.
The gathering of 30 people in Great Plains Manufacturing Convention Hall, seated at safe distances, was necessary to formally approve the U.S. offer that was drafted over three separate four-day confidential mediation sessions that concluded Jan. 15 in Kansas City, Mo.
“The fact that four public entities have worked cooperatively together as long as they have, is impressive,” Schrage said. “It was obvious as we were negotiating that we were together and our resolve was to stay together as we have all along, and that helped in our negotiating positions.”
Echoing those sentiments was Greg Bengtson, legal counsel for both the city and airport authority.
“I think (solidarity) has everything to do with us being at this point in the process,” he said, “along with good advice from environmental council and the benefit of the technical capabilities of the Dragun Corporation as our technical consultants.”
A number of key figures emerged during the investigation of contamination at the former base, Bengtson said, reaching back to the early 2000s.
“When the U.S. government came out and did an initial analysis, the recommendation was that natural attenuation over time would solve the problem,” he said.
In other words, the contamination would naturally dilute to the point that it would be safe.
Enter Ilene Munk, who had been an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency in Kansas City.
“We were fortunate that Ilene had recently come back to Salina,” Bengtson said. “She was the one who recognized there were aspects of the site that were not fully investigated, that there was a lot more to be learned about the contamination at the site.”
Attorney Ann Zimmerman was sharing an office with Munk at the time.
“Ilene had an entire conference room filled up with notebooks on the water issues,” she said.
The SPE’s all-in votes June 24, told a story in and of itself, said Zimmerman, school board president. The Salina native has been following the issue since moving back to town in 2000.
“It’s just an enormous accomplishment to get this done,” she said. “We seemed to be on the right side of this the whole time, but you do hear that this is revolutionary, that nobody else across the country has been able to accomplish this type of thing.”
Staying in lockstep on the issue was “huge,” she said. “I think it surprised the government that we all stuck together.”
Keeping the big picture at the forefront was — and still is — a big deal to Alysia Starkey, CEO and dean of Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus.
“I’ve found the SPEs have worked incredibly well together and have been very well focused on not each other’s individual interests, but the interests of the community of Salina as a whole,” she said. “It’s been very different than any other group I’ve been in before.”
While he’s proud to have played a role, City Manager Schrage was quick to remind there were many others through the years.
“I took it the last five yards,” he said. “Everybody else did all the heavy lifting on this deal.”
Salina Public Entities stayed the course and never swayed, Starkey said.
“It started out with a pledge to protect the greater Salina community, and it ended that way,” Starkey said. “There will be people after us, fulfilling the obligations of this remedial plan. I have every confidence that they will remain committed to the best interests of Salina.”
It’s always been that way, said Dennis Kissinger, now of Shawnee. He was Salina city manager for 17 1/2 years, including when the Schilling contamination discussions began, and has been retired roughly 15 years.
“What may be most impressive about it is that all the changing political leadership of the public entities, stayed together,” he said. “It’s a remarkable example of inter-governmental trust and cooperation. Everyone was looking out for not only their own interests, but more important than their one entity was looking out for their whole community.”
Remaining steadfast against federal leaders helped the SPE prevail, Kissinger said.
“They thought they could outlast the local community, and the persistence of working on behalf of the locals was something that Salina and Saline County is very good at,” he said. “It’s nice to finally be on the right side of history with this.”