Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Cleanup using UConn technique under way at Roosevelt Mills

By Audrey Resutek
Journal Inquirer
June 26, 2006

VERNON - Rusty stalactites hang from the ceiling over a floor covered with rotting sweaters. A loom the size of a tanker truck dominates one end of the room, and a group of people stands among a sea of discarded buttons at the other.

One man thrusts a handful of buttons into the crowd and proclaims, "Take some buttons!"

The man is Laurence R. Shaffer, the town administrator. He is surrounded by state and federal officials, researchers, an architect, and environmentalists who have joined the effort to turn the abandoned Roosevelt Mills building at 215 E. Main St. into an apartment complex, bistro, and recreational center.

The renovation of the old mill in the Rockville section of town depends on the success of a relatively new environmental cleanup technique developed at the University of Connecticut. It will make the building safe for reuse, and is an important step in rejuvenating the town's declining industrial area, Shaffer said.

The town has a special interest in the mill project because it wants to see this corner of blight removed.

And the benefits?

"To revitalize what is still an attractive neighborhood, to clean the pollutants, to create needed housing, and to create a tax base," Shaffer said.

Rockville, once a city within Vernon, was one of the nation's largest fabric-producing industrial centers in the 19th century because of its location on the Hockanum River.
Silicon Rockville?

"Rockville 100 years ago was the Silicon Valley of its time," Shaffer said.

Evolving technology and the availability of cheaper foreign production forced all but two of the town's mills to close.

Roosevelt Mills was built in 1906 and was known as the Minterburn Mill until 1951, when owner Joseph Carter, an Italian immigrant, renamed it Roosevelt Knitting Mills. At the height of its prosperity, the mill employed 250 workers, about 80 percent of whom were women, Carter said.

The mill shut down in 1988, when workers walked off their jobs after not being paid for three weeks. It has since run up an $850,000 property tax bill, Shaffer said.

Now, the mill's interior is cluttered with old sewing machines, boxes of abandoned fabric, and tattered handbooks on how to dye fabrics.

"I've walked through that building alone," said Joseph Vallone, the Westport-based architect with whom the town has partnered to redevelop the mill, "and I can almost see the people knitting."

Before any renovations can begin, though, hazardous chemicals must be removed from the soil below. During the course of nearly a century of operation, carcinogenic solvents, including tetrachloroethene, also known as perchloroethylene or PCE, used in processing the fabrics, built up in the soil below the former sweater factory.

Giant dry-cleaning tanks in the basement spilled pollutants into troughs in the floor, Shaffer said. The pollution then seeped into the soil and bedrock, where it remained until cleanup efforts began in October 2005

"Didn't know any better"

"Our ancestors were not insensitive to the environment," Shaffer said. "They just didn't know any better."

For example, workers who spilled grease on their shirts went down to the basement, dipped a cloth into the PCE, and scrubbed the grease off. They had no idea they were exposing themselves to a dangerous chemical, Shaffer said.

Before the cleanup began, PCE levels at the site were above the 5 micrograms per liter that is considered to be the maximum safe level for drinking water, Paul McCauley, a chemist at the federal Environmental Protection Agency said.

Tetrachloroethene exposure causes dizziness, headaches, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty speaking and walking, and finally unconsciousness and death, according to the information on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's Web site.

Exposure occurs through drinking the chemical or breathing vapors, and because the chemical is stored in fat, it can remain in the body for weeks, according to the agency.

Women exposed to PCE in the dry-cleaning industry have a higher incidence of menstrual problems and spontaneous abortions, according to the agency said.

The mill is located in a residential area, next to the Shenipsit Lake Reservoir, which provides water to the towns of Ellington and Vernon.

Other common pollutants also are being removed from the site, including lead, PCBs, asbestos, and coal ash, but the technique being used to clean the PCE is unique, said Armine Dahmani, a section team leader at Spectrum Analytical, who helped develop the technique at the UConn's Environmental Research Institute.

The technique uses solutions of potassium permanganate and sodium persulfate to eliminate the PCE, McCauley said.

Common problem at old mills

PCE contamination is a common problem in old mills.

According to the EPA Web site, PCE is present at 771 of 1,430, or 54 percent of its National Priority List sites.

"There is a clear need for this technology," Dahmani said.

At the mill, over the course of three weeks, 830,000 liters of solution were injected into wells that reach up to 15 feet below the basement floor.

Pumps drew water from a fire hydrant into a trailer outside the mill, where it was mixed with the chemicals in 500-gallon tanks before being inserted into the wells, Dahmani said.

The PCE is converted into carbon dioxide and water. Salt and sulfate are also products of the reaction.

Sulfate causes some taste and unpleasant odor in drinking water, Dahmani said, but is essentially harmless.

The first round of treatment at Roosevelt Mills began in October 2005, and destroyed half the PCE, Dahmani said.

Winter weather contributed to the long break between the first treatment, and the second treatment in March. A bald eagle that took up residence in the area also contributed to the delay, as EPA will not allow treatments during the winter, when the bird is near the site, Dahmani said.

The EPA, which is not involved in the remediation process, assessed the site before the cleanup, and will do so again afterwards. The process should cost about $800,000, and will be financed by EPA grants, Shaffer said.

The cleanup process itself is funded by a state Department of Housing and Urban Development grant for $500,000.

Once the remediation process is done, Vallone will transform the building into Loom City Lofts, which will house 68 apartments and 10,000 square feet of commercial space.

Apartments will be fireproof

The reinforced-concrete structure lends itself to apartments because it is fireproof and, unlike other mills of the era, it contains only one row of columns, Vallone said.

Despite a 1999 fire in a one-story addition, the main body of the mill is still strong enough to support a several-ton rug loom that has been on the top floor since the mill closed.

The construction will take 14 months to 16 months to finish, Vallone said.

"This thing has been around since before World War I," Vallone said. "Someone needs to pay homage to that history."
Roosevelt Mills is one of four old mills Vernon is cleaning, but it is not low on the town's list of priorities Shaffer said.

When the old mills went out of business, they left behind vacant facilities and environmental contaminants.

"This is the result of the free-market economy hitting its end," Shaffer said. "We could let this place go until it falls down, but it's a dangerous building."

"We need to solve the Roosevelt Mills problem," he said. "It's the first step to solving the rest of the mill problems."

©Journal Inquirer 2006