A family-owned industrial furnace manufacturer that counts Boeing and General Electric among its customers commemorated the opening of its new plant Thursday with Bucks County officials who had long sought to redevelop what was once unused, heavily contaminated land.
Solar Manufacturing bought 8½ acres out of 44 in an industrial district of Sellersville, a borough of 4,300 people about 40 miles north of Philadelphia. William R. Jones and his wife, Myrtle, said they purchased the property in 2017 for a little more than $1 million and spent $9 million to build the two-story, 59,000-square-foot plant.
“We wanted to breathe new life into this old site,” Robert G. Loughery, chairman of the Bucks County Board of Commissioners, said at the company’s ribbon-cutting Thursday morning.
But the Joneses said they hadn’t known the land was tainted with trichloroethylene left behind decades ago by another factory, U.S. Gauge. The colorless liquid that can be used as a solvent to remove grease from metal had leached into the soil and decomposed so slowly that large concentrations remained.
William Jones said engineers whom he and his wife had hired early on to test the property gave them “a clean bill of health.”
“It wasn’t quite so," he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized the Joneses’ property at 900 East Clymer Ave. as a brownfield, a site where redevelopment is complicated by contamination. The EPA estimates 450,000 brownfields exist in the United States.
“You have to realize that before the Second World War, and even during the Second World War, and after the Second World War, nobody gave any concerns to how they disposed of their waste products — particularly in this case, solvents," William Jones said. "And what they did, quite frankly — they dumped them out the back door.”
He estimated trichloroethylene, or TCE, contaminated the soil for 50 years. In the meantime, AMETEK Inc., a Berwyn-based global manufacturer of electric devices, bought U.S. Gauge and the company, which at its peak employed more than 1,700 people, moved out. The TCE stayed.
TCE evaporates quickly in the air but lingers in the ground, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In recent years, the Bucks County Industrial Development Authority, or BCIDA, bought the land with a loan from the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development. The county agency, headed by Mary Smithson, installed water, sewer, phone, and lighting systems and brought in landscapers.
“Your partnership with us — you made a giant leap of faith,” Smithson said Thursday, addressing the Joneses.
Over 1½ years, the federal EPA paid $300,000 to clean up the contamination. And the Jones family paid $150,000 for further remediation, William Jones said.
“Certain parts of the ground were so badly contaminated it cost about $300,000 to dig the ground up, put it into trucks and cart it away, and have the ground burned," he said. A new, shedlike structure at the back of Solar Manufacturing still aerates the ground today to further reduce the presence of TCE.
The Joneses’ new Sellersville plant, 85% of which has been financed by Univest while the family paid the remaining 15% in cash, consolidates the operations split among three of its furnace manufacturing facilities in nearby Souderton and Telford. The family said it received about a 50% tax break for building on the property.
The family also has three facilities that heat-treat metal — a preliminary step before manufacturing — from Pennsylvania to California. The company, which the family said annually records $20 million in sales and $70 million in revenue, has considered building a fourth.
“When you machine something — punch it, move metal around — that changes the structure internally, and you have to put it back into original chemistry,” he said. “That’s what Solar Manufacturing does. In simple terms, if you’ve seen a blacksmith bending a horseshoe or something, he heats it with a torch, or maybe in a furnace. And he takes it out and plunges it into water. That’s the heat-treating process. We do the same thing, but we don’t do it like that. We do it in a much more sophisticated, controlled way.”
Solar Manufacturing largely caters to the aircraft and medical industries, Jones said, crafting products for customers like Boeing, General Electric, and Pratt & Whitney.
The Sellersville location has 55 of the firm’s 365 employees. In the next three years, he said, he expects his family’s company to expand threefold in sales and in its employee count.