But Army officials apparently believe the property is safe enough for food production. For decades, the Army Corps of Engineers has leased around 6,000 acres at Sunflower to area farmers. Cattle roam amid the empty water towers and rusty pipes, getting fat on the waist-high weeds, awaiting their date with the butcher's blade.
"I've been working here for 25 years, and the cattle's been here as long as I have," says Tom Stutz, Army installation manager at the plant. He says 1,500 to 1,700 cows graze on-site, and each one of them is safe to eat. "I would eat the meat from this plant any time," he says. "The thing that's important to remember is the contamination isn't from fence to fence, east to west. It's in areas where production went on."
Equally unworried are the farmers who raise their cattle (and, over the years, such crops as soybeans, corn, sorghum, alfalfa, wheat, sweet potatoes, parsley, watermelons, pumpkins, cantaloupes, turnips, and radishes) amid the unknown quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, and dioxins. "I really don't see a safety problem," says Jerry Hickey, an independent farmer from Olathe. "The place where I am, nothing was ever on it. It's just a perimeter area. I find it hard to believe there's contamination over the entire area."
But Hickey says he's never double-checked his assumption. "I know they drilled some test wells out there in the last few years," he says. "But I have no idea what the results were." So he happily leases his 270 acres for $10 each per year, as he has for the past five years. During the summer, he keeps 60 head of cattle there. He sells some of his cows at auction; others go to area meat-eaters with a little extra room in their freezers. "They find out about me through word of mouth," Hickey says.
Paul Hambelton, who has a lease to harvest hay, thinks the Army's agricultural leasing program is a good thing. "It takes ground that is otherwise not economically viable and makes it viable again," he says (he owns land adjacent to the plant site). Although he was concerned at first, he ultimately chose to trust the government. "When I bought the land, I thought about the contamination and looked into it," he says. "I found out there's some contamination that's affected the ground water. But I think the federal government has caution on its side."
A report filed at the Johnson County Library in DeSoto would seem to back up Hambelton's theory. The Final Grazing Study Work Plan, which was completed in May 1996, addresses concerns that "cattle could be grazing in areas unknown for past contamination.... Because of human dietary consumption of beef, the possible contamination of cattle through the ingestion of contaminated soil, water, and vegetation at SFAAP could become important human exposure pathways to evaluate." The plan, which fills two fat binders, lays out parameters and a timeline for assessing any possible Sunflower cow contamination, and sets a procession of due dates culminating in April 1997.
In particular, the study's goal was to determine the extent of contamination in areas outside the plant's solid-waste management units -- those areas have already been studied, and the Army Corps of Engineers found significant levels of toxins in and around them. It's the spaces in between -- where the cows moo and the crops grow -- that had the bureaucrats worried: "Data gaps exist for a plantwide assessment. Potentially contaminated media might include soil, surface water, sediment, and vegetation."
So what did they find out?
Stutz says the study wasn't completed. "I heard there was no money left for it," he explains. The final report is certainly nowhere to be found at the Johnson County Library (where the government-document stacks abound with such hefty Sunflower page-turners as the Environmental Baseline Survey, the Chemical Quality Management Plan, and the Flocculation and Clarification Treatability Study Report). The project manager for the Final Grazing Study Work Plan, Dennis A. Degner of Kansas City-based Burns & McDonnell Waste Consultants Inc., quit the firm and the project several years ago, and no one at Burns & McDonnell seems to know anything about the study.
"They'd been pushing to get it finished up," says Stutz, "but they kept pushing it to the back burner."
That didn't stop the Army Corps of Engineers, however, from leasing its land to farmers, who sell their goods to consumers, who eat it all up.