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The General Motors plant in Janesville is reflected on the Rock River early Friday morning, July 24, 2015.

JANESVILLE

Demolition work over the past year has cleared most of the former General Motors plant, leaving little behind besides the smokestack and the façade of the administrative building.

As the weather continues to warm, cleanup crews soon will begin on a new step in the GM project: clearing contaminants from the Rock River.

The river is part one of a two-part remediation. The assembly plant site itself will need an environmental cleanse, but industrial debris and rubble must be removed first, said Jason Lowery of the state Department of Natural Resources.

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Property owner Commercial Development Company assumed responsibility for the cleanup when it bought the plant site from GM. The DNR is overseeing the effort and can modify plans before approval, Lowery said.

Bill Fitzpatrick, a DNR employee focusing mainly on the river portion, said water cleanup was briefly delayed last summer. The city removed the Monterey Dam in July, forcing modifications to a plan that had been ready to go.

“We were aware the city had plans to do so. It wasn’t a shock,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was just a change in circumstances that had to be adapted to.”

Once the project was adjusted, late-summer flooding kept crews out of the water and pushed the work to spring. If river cleanup remains on schedule, it should finish this year. GM cleanup has moved faster than other brownfield sites, Fitzpatrick said.

Four discharge areas are located on the southern bank of the river bend near GM. Only one of these has a high concentration of contaminants, and it’s the only one slated to be dredged, according to a map provided by the DNR.

Both the river and the plant site have similar contaminants. They are mostly metals and chemicals that occur naturally in coal, oil and gasoline, Lowery said.

The plant site still needs some sampling work before cleanup can begin. Remaining debris should be gone this summer so final testing can take place, he said.

Access to testing locations can sometimes be the biggest hurdle to cleaning former industrial sites, he said.

A final report for assembly plant cleanup could be ready by fall. Remediation probably wouldn’t begin until the weather warms up again. It’s possible work at the plant site could begin in 2019, but summer 2020 is more likely, Lowery said.

Cleanup here will involve excavation and a method known as capping. It’s not practical to remove all tainted soil, so capping creates a barrier to prevent further contamination, he said.

Both Lowery and Fitzpatrick said the DNR has had a productive working relationship with Commercial Development.

Fitzpatrick added he’s confident the Rock River and former factory property can be cleaned and preserved for the future.

“It can be complicated, but we have a great deal of experience doing environmental cleanups in waterways,” he said. “With good contractors and appropriate regulatory oversight, we’ve shown time and time again we can remediate these sites and bring back the environment.”

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