State

Riverbank ammo plant at end of Army service

RIVERBANK — The Army's ammunition plant was a mainstay for America's arsenal, producing millions of casings for large guns and other weaponry.

In its heyday during the Vietnam War, the plant employed more than 2,000 workers who made cartridges and casings for mortars and grenades.

The plant's military mission officially ends today when the Army deactivates the 173-acre plant at Claus and Claribel roads.

"It's a tough one for me," said Modesto resident James Gansel, a former commander's representative at the plant, who retired in 2002 after 28 years there.

"I spent an awful lot of years of my life there," he said. "I have an awful lot of memories of the people I got to know and work with."

The 10 a.m. ceremony to deactivate the plant is by invitation only. The officials on the guest list include the mayors of Riverbank and Oakdale as well as staff members representing state Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, and U.S. Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa.

Ripon High School's JROTC color guard will be on hand, too.

This day has been in the making for five years.

The 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission included the ammunition plant in its list of military facilities to be closed.

The city is expected to take over the plant Thursday under a no-cost lease. The city expects to eventually own the plant at no cost.

The City Council voted 5-0 Tuesday to authorize City Manager Rich Holmer to enter into a lease agreement with the Army. City officials say the agreement protects the city by requiring the Army to be responsible for the cleanup of any contaminants at the plant.

The city envisions transforming the plant into an industrial park, adding to the nine civilian tenants now at the plant. For more than a decade, the plant has leased space to businesses.

The Army Joint Munitions Command is relocating its Riverbank operations to its Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois.

NI Industries, the military contractor that has operated the plant since 1951 and manufactured the casings and other components, expects to have the remaining equipment and materials moved by September.

"NI Industries, Inc. is very proud to have operated the Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant on behalf of the U.S. Army for over sixty years," company officials said in an e-mail.

" ... We are even more proud of our employees who have worked at this facility with utmost dedication and commitment for many years ensuring that products of the highest quality were delivered to the military on time."

NI started laying off workers last year as it wrapped up production. It filed notices with the state saying it was laying off 30 workers in May, one in July and two in August. An NI official declined to say Tuesday how many employees remain at the plant.

Alcoa built the plant during World War II to produce aluminum for the military. The Army took control of the plant in 1951.

At one time, Gansel said, the plant was Riverbank's biggest employer. He said NI had 600 employees during much of his time at the plant.

"These were good-paying jobs, union jobs," he said. "NI was an excellent employer for the workers."

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or 578-2316.

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