Salina, KS - Two more milestones have been notched in a 22-year effort to clean up former Schilling AFB environmental contamination.
The Salina City Commission approved on Monday, April 26 the consulting and engineering contract with Dragun Corp., which will map plans to clean up pollution in, under and around the former base.
On April 12 the Kansas Department of Health & Environment approved an amended Consent Agreement and Final Order, also moved the process along this spring at the former military compound that operated from 1942 to 1965.
Shortly after its closure, the base was repurposed to form a vital economic engine for Salina and Saline County.
All along, however, remnants of a grim past lurked in the form of groundwater and soil contamination and threatened to hinder the continued growth of Salina’s Airport and Airport Industrial area.
The military left behind years of pollution, primarily from the solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, in the soil and groundwater.
A carcinogen, TCE was used as a degreaser to wash aircraft and weapons at the base. Officials also determined the contamination was creeping, ever so slowly, to the northeast toward city water wells.
While the wells are not in immediate danger, the aim right now is to eliminate or neutralize sources of the contamination.
The necessary formalities this month, on behalf of the Salina Public Entities — the city, Kansas State University, USD 305 and Salina Airport Authority — cleared the way for a massive cleanup beginning this fall.
“Now we’re getting to the actual design,” said Martha Tasker, Salina director of utilities, who is co-managing the project with Matt Schroeder senior environmental engineer at Dragun Corp. of Farmington Hills, Mich., which will design the remediation plan with a team of sub-consultants.
“Turning some dirt. That’s where we’re headed,” Tasker said.
Schroeder and the Dragun team will complete project design, specialized contractors will carry out the cleanup and Tasker will make sure the project stays on or below budget, while protecting the groundwater, soil and air quality.
Design and bidding work will continue through this spring and summer, said Tim Rogers, airport authority executive director, and the cleanup will commence in roughly five months.
“Now it’s actually doing something,” Tasker said. “This is kind of exciting. Before, it was just talking about the problem and everybody was frustrated.”
Schroeder is equally enthused to develop the plan, then put it to work.
“I’m an engineer, and engineers like to go out there and build things,” he said. “I am very happy to move from investigation to something with real life results that will show people our accomplishments.”
There will be some reassessment, testing that hasn’t occurred since 2018, to obtain fresh sampling results to factor into the attack, Schroeder said.
“We will go out there and do another round of groundwater monitoring,” he said.
Dragun is experienced in these matters, Schroeder said, and won’t be working alone.
“We will be partnering with other firms that have some specific technical capabilities, and specific contractors implementing these technologies,” he said. “This is what they do every day of their lives.”
Initial actions will focus on the sources of contamination.
“In some areas, it will be as simple as digging up contaminated soils and taking that away to be disposed of,” Schroeder said. “In other areas, we will heat up the soil to volatilize the contaminants.”
Subsurface barriers will be installed underground “to capture or break down the contaminants as they flow with the groundwater,” he said.
Several underground “plumes” are identified,” Tasker said.
“Some have contamination that’s pretty hot and others aren’t as big of a concern,” she said. “A lot of the water will go through a pump-and-treat process. It’s taking a look at everything. I call it a buffet of treatments. There are a lot of volatile organic compounds and they degrade over time.”
Evaluations and pilot testing will determine the best alternatives, Tasker said.
“The project is in great hands,” Rogers said.
While most of the cleanup will be accomplished in the first five years, Schroeder said, and decades of monitoring and spot treatment may be ahead before the project is deemed complete.
“This area didn’t get contaminated overnight, and it’s not gonna get cleaned up overnight,” Tasker said. “We look for some of that testing to carry on through 2050. We want to make sure that area is safe. It’s not just protecting the groundwater, it’s also protecting the air.”
Contamination dates back to the 1940s and much of it has “diffused into the clay soil,” Schroeder said. “It takes a long time to counteract that diffusion process.”
They have also prepared to work around the $300 million Schwan’s expansion.
“Before Schwan’s started their project, they did their due diligence. They hired a company to look at their site and did a tremendous amount of testing,” Tasker said. “They didn’t find a lot to be alarmed by. Matt reviewed the work, and there was nothing of great concern.”
The airport industrial area is already a busy place and will be more-so when the cleanup begins. Public interest is expected.
“We welcome the community’s interest in this. I’ve always liked this project from the standpoint of how knowledgeable the general public is,” Schroeder said. “I really feel like people are in favor of our work, and that’s not always the case in environmental cleanup.”
Tasker’s already logged some 18 years on the Schilling cleanup, and she’s geared for more.
“Impatience is an internal enemy in the work I do. Everything takes a lot of preparation, planning and thought, then you’ve got to work your plan and follow through. You don’t just throw it on the shelf,” Tasker said. “This will take an unbelievable amount of time, and we won’t get it all done between 8 and 5, either.”
She’s honored to be involved.
“This has been a long time in the making, and a person should feel fortunate to be part of it,” Tasker said. “I will run like heck from mice, but I don’t run from work.”
Project funding comes from the $65.9 million settlement approved by the U.S. District Court, Kansas. With the settlement fund now on deposit the Salina Public Entities can complete the clean up at no cost to existing and future Airport and Airport Industrial Center businesses.