June 25, 2008

Former Workers Recall Plant Heyday As Smokestacks Fall



The demolition of the last remaining smokestacks of FMC Corp's old steam plant marked the end of an era for the South Charleston area and those who worked there.

At 8 a.m. Sunday, nearly 100 gathered on Brownfield Way behind the Advance Auto Parts across from the South Charleston mound to watch Bianchi Industrial Services, a demolition group out of Syracuse, N.Y., destroy the last two smokestacks of the old FMC steam plant.

Many of the steam plant's former employees came to witness the destruction of their old workplace.

Bobby Young, 78, stood by a high chain-link fence watching and waiting while his old stomping grounds stalled before tumbling in a heap of smoke. With his red and white FMC cap and sunglasses, he waited more than 20 minutes for the smokestack, which served as a break room for the group he worked with, to fall.

Young, who is from St. Albans, worked in boiler repair and in the powerhouse among other places around the old steam plant. There was a break room complete with a refrigerator and air conditioning situated in the last smokestack to fall. Young retired in 1992.

"I always kind of figured I'd be [working] there until the end, but I wasn't," said Young. "Forty-two years kind of makes it feel like home."

Another man and his daughter waited through a delay in demolishing the second smokestack, even though they were on their way to church. Tom Lawson, 65, of Charleston worked at FMC for 25 years, spending 10 years at the steam plant and was among the last group to leave the plant.

"I had a lot of friends there. We see each other at things like this and we shake hands and talk about old times, it brings back a lot of memories," Lawson said, nodding his head back at Young.

Lawson and Young hadn't seen each other in a while, but the former coworkers posed for a picture together for Lawson's daughter.

The spectacle started at 7:59 a.m. when the last warning siren sounded from the South Charleston Fire Department trucks that were diverting traffic on MacCorkle Avenue in front of the site. One minute later four booming explosions rung out, echoing off the mountains that surrounded the Chemical Valley, as it was once known.

The first smokestack, as seen from the left on Brownfield Way, wavered then leaned forward and to the right before falling to the ground and causing a dark gray cloud to billow up around it. The second smokestack took its time falling to the ground.

Mark Bosell of Bianchi Industrial Services said the explosions went off as planned but instead of knocking the second stack down, the blast blew the bottom out and caused the concrete structure to squat on its foundation.

Officials said this was the first demolition of its kind in the Kanawha Valley since the destruction of the smokestacks at the old Libbey-Owens-Ford glass factory in Kanawha City in the early 1980s. At least eight smokestacks were demolished after the plant closed.

The demolition of the smokestacks in South Charleston will mean eight acres of prime riverfront land for the city of South Charleston once the land is cleaned up through the Brownfields land reclamation project. The project's goal is to rid the land of chemicals and other harmful substances that may be left behind in the footprints of the huge chemical plants that once stood along the Kanawha River and other areas throughout the country.

It is a voluntary project that FMC started in May 1997. A Rite Aid now stands on reclaimed land along with a body shop and service center owned by the Joe Holland car dealership.

"The whole purpose is to return the land to productive use," said David Hight, a project manager for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. "It was an outdated plant. I hate to see the jobs go, but the point is to get the land redeveloped to bring more jobs in."

The Brownfields project works with the community and listens to what residents want for the land, Jim Bodamer of FMC explained. Bodamer has been working on the site since 1996 and serves on the Public Advisory Group for the project.

Bob Anderson, director of the South Charleston Convention and Visitor's Bureau, hopes to put new businesses on the reclaimed land for the future development of the city and to bring in more jobs. Anderson said that a shopping mall is a possibility for the site.

The steam plant began operations in the 1920s on MacCorkle Avenue. The plant originally had six stacks. Two stacks were demolished years before the plant closed in 2003 and another pair was dismantled brick-by-brick from top to bottom around the time the plant ceased operations.

For the workers who gathered to witness Sunday's demolition, the sight was bittersweet.

"Companies are sending businesses overseas," Lawson said. "South Charleston used to be the 'Chemical Capital of the World' and now there's hardly anything left of it."

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