Little alarm bells went off for Jay Rutler about three years ago, when his son — who was in middle school at the time — started talking about a mysterious “warehouse” in the neighborhood that kids liked to visit.
So at his son’s urging, Rutler walked out to the long-abandoned Kuhlman Diecasting plant about three-quarters of a mile from their family’s home.
“When I was out, there were a couple of high school kids making out in one corner and a bunch of kids that were young – middle school, maybe elementary school – that were climbing on the roof of that place,” Rutler said. “You’ve got rusted holes through it, and big openings that were windows or vent holes. It was obviously very concerning.”
The old plant is a well-known worry for parents near Blue Valley Middle School and an elementary school nearby. Only a short walk from the Blue Valley Wilderness Science Center, it’s also earned a measure of renown online as a space for urban exploring, skateboarding, ghost hunting and other less legal activities.
Johnson County officials know about it, too.
It’s a common source of calls to the sheriff’s department for everything from suspicious vehicles to loud teenagers. For 30 years, efforts to get rid of the decaying building — or to even build a fence around it — have been mired in legal issues and complicated by Kuhlman’s bankruptcy.
But that may be changing. A triple fatality on railroad tracks near the plant last fall has put the spotlight on the property once again. Now, county park district officials are considering future uses for the property, should the county acquire it. There is even some optimism that the building could be razed in the next year.
The dilapidated building at 16400 Mission Road sits far enough back from the intersection of Mission and 163rd Terrace that passers-by can easily miss it, even when the leaves are down in winter. Getting there involves a walk through the woods. A narrow rutted track indicates that some people have driven off-road to get closer.
The concrete shell of the building still has its roof, though holes gape where windows and loading bays once stood. It’s extensively tagged with graffiti inside and out, and the grounds near it are strewn with discarded metal.
Just over an embankment to the west is the Blue River, and railroad tracks pass along the east side. Open floodplain borders the woods on either side of the river, putting the ruins mostly out of earshot from the nearest homes and businesses.
It’s a site well-known to the sheriff’s department, even before last fall’s crash. The department counted up 274 calls to the area around the plant since 2005. Only a few of them were for serious suspicious activity – fires, drugs, burglary. Most were to check on unoccupied cars parked on streets nearby and to check out reports of teenagers and other trespassers on the property.
The fire district, too, has led investigations of juveniles hurt inside the building and conducted missing persons searches there, too.
Online, the spot has caught the attention of people who explore abandoned properties, and there’s a YouTube video that does a walk-through of the structure.
On other websites, commenters share stories of close calls with police or encounters with possibly sketchy people. Some claim the site is a rite of passage for Blue Valley kids. A few even search for ghosts.
“There are urban legends, juvenile parties, everything from devil worship to you name it,” said Sheriff Calvin Hayden. “People go out and park and it’s a curiosity. It’s an attractive nuisance to young people,” he said.
Rutler understands the attraction.
“Looking at it from a kid’s point of view, it looks awesome. Yeah, absolutely they want to go hang out there. It’s a kid paradise,” he said.
But as far as his son was concerned, it was a big no-no.
“I’m just concerned a kid’s going to get hurt out there,” he said.
Rutler said watching smaller kids up on the roof during his walk over there was unnerving.
“I’m sure there’s very young kids getting up there. I’m just afraid of what’s going to happen,” he said.
Rutler voiced his concerns to his mother, newly elected Johnson County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara, and she’s been bringing it up at commission meetings every week since taking her seat in January.
But calls for action have become increasingly urgent since a triple-fatality crash on railroad tracks adjacent to the property just last fall.
The accident occurred just after 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 10, according to the sheriff department’s narrative of the incident. Four friends were driving in a Jeep Wrangler on private property adjacent to the plant. The vehicle was exiting the field and attempting to cross the tracks on a private road, when it was hit by a northbound Union Pacific train doing 50 miles an hour.
The train hit the Jeep in the rear, and all four people inside were ejected, the sheriff’s report said. Three people were killed, including Kevin Corbin, 40, of Stilwell; Brenton Moroney, 37, of Overland Park; and Troy Hamlin, 40, of Overland Park. The driver, Chancie Adams, 41, of Overland Park, survived.
The report does not say what the four were doing on the property or whether their drive was connected to the abandoned plant. A call to Adams’ voice mail was not returned.
But for Hayden, it was the last straw.
Environmental issues and bankruptcy
The Kuhlman Diecasting Company had operated its metal manufacturing business near Stanley since the early 1960s, according to court records found online. The company produced aluminum alloy, zinc and plastic die cast products for commercial and industrial use.
Kuhlman filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1990, but troubles continued from there. A year later a fire broke out at the facility. What firefighters saw when they answered the call was concerning enough to alert the Environmental Protection Agency.
On the site were some 800 to 900 drums and containers, some open, of a variety of sludge. Copper cyanide, chromic and hydrochloric acid and corrosive cleaning solutions were present, and there were high concentrations of chromium, copper, nickel and zinc in the soil and sediments near ponds on the site. Pools of electroplating solution were found on the floor of the main buildings.
The area became an EPA Superfund site, and the agency spent over $2 million cleaning it up, but there is still some minor contamination on the site.
The legal issues entangling the site have been a big reason it’s taken so long for any action. The EPA filed liens on the property for clean-up expenses. The county manager’s office said the exact amount of the liens is unknown. One record cites a $1.4 million request for reimbursement.
The property is still privately owned, with the liquidating agent appointed during Kuhlman’s bankruptcy. County officials say there were efforts for years by private individuals to acquire it out of the bankruptcy and get the EPA to release the liens.
Whoever buys it would have the remaining environmental issues, as well as the factory shell to deal with. Very preliminary estimates by the county put the cost of demolition and required fencing at $300,000 to $500,000.
The plant’s setting enhances the difficulties. Even building a fence is fraught. The building is located in the Blue River floodway, meaning it’s right next to the river in a place very vulnerable to flooding that could be obstructed by fencing. It’s also bisected by the railroad tracks, adding another layer of complexity.
Despite all those challenges, some county officials say they are beginning to hope for an end in sight.
Past commissions have been reluctant to take on the former Superfund site with public money and then potentially be stuck with more liability. But an EPA-funded site assessment indicates that although the area still has some contamination, it would be okay for low-intensity use, like a park. The federal agency also has been receptive in recent discussions to releasing its liens if the county takes ownership, county manager’s officials said.
The property is in an unincorporated area that abuts Overland Park, and the city and county have both been looking at recreational uses for the area, said Bill Maasen, superintendent of parks and golf courses at the Johnson County Park and Recreation District.
So far things are in the very preliminary stages and more about concepts than specifics, but Maasen said things could happen quickly. He’s hoping the building could even be torn down in 2021.
“It’s a piece of the ground that should have some ultimate beneficial use, even if it’s just green space,” he said.
Commissioner O’Hara says she’ll continue to press for action.
“It is truly, truly a deathtrap and we need to move on it as quickly as possible,” she said.