AP Environmental Science students at Randolph-Macon Academy recently visited the site of the Avtex Superfund cleanup site.
This is the first year that R-MA has offered an environmental science class, taught by Hannah Bement. Hannah earned a Master of Environmental Science degree from the Yale School of Forestry and loves sharing her knowledge of the natural world with her students. Part of the environmental science curriculum covers the health impacts of toxic chemicals as well as the impact of regulation on the health of humans and the environment. It was a natural tie-in to connect textbook facts to the history of the site that has been influential to the Front Royal community that the students call home while studying at R-MA.
Students did not have to travel far for the field trip as Avtex shares a border with R-MA. Despite its close proximity, students admitted to not knowing much about the site and its past. According to Naomi Eke-Spiff ‘18, “I've been around Front Royal for about six years and had no clue that all that was going on, and there was all that land not too far from our school.” That is, until they spoke with Doug Bement, Professional Engineer emeritus who worked on the cleanup project at the Avtex site.
Students learned about the history of Avtex, a manufacturing company that produced rayon and other synthetic materials. The site was shut down in 1989 for financial, environmental, and safety concerns. Through the EPA Superfund Program, a coalition of private and governmental entities worked to safely remove and dispose of hazardous contaminants and to reclaim the site for its current use as nature conservancy, recreational area, and economic development.. According to R-MA student Parker Overstreet ‘17, it was “fascinating that we have a prime example of what we are learning about in our back yard. It is amazing how nature, with a little bit of help, can reclaim its territory and make it habitable for life again.”
Students were amazed that R-MA was an active school throughout the entirety of Avtex’s operation from 1940-1989 and were glad that they could now enjoy the fresh air that was once fouled with industrial fumes. Students remarked, “We are lucky to get to live and learn in such a beautiful setting!”
During the field trip, students stood in the warm sunshine and watched a dozen turtles floating along the surface of a pond. The wind rippled through the golden grasses that Mr. Bement described as “the most expensive grass fields around” as a result of intensive efforts to make the soil safe and prevent erosion.
Students were excited that much of the land is in conservancy trust and would not be developed, but senior students lamented that they would be leaving after graduation before plans for the land to open to the public with walking and biking trails might come to fruition.
When asked if the EPA Superfund project was successful, Doug gave an enthusiastic yes. Without the EPA to enforce the cleanup regulations, the site would probably still be a work in progress. Despite its mixed history, the Avtex site is arguably the most successful EPA Superfund site in the country and is now an asset that Front Royal should be proud of, providing both parklands and economic real estate – as well as educational opportunities for bright, young environmental scientists.