OGDEN — More than 41,000 containers of waste have thus far been removed from the Swift Building on the banks of the Weber River, the old warehouse that’s the focus of an intense clean-up effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
When the effort concludes, perhaps in August, that number could grow to 80,000 containers of varied shapes and sizes, the agency estimates.
“By most measures this is a pretty big, very involved cleanup, and a lot of that has to do with the number of containers,” Paul Peronard, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator at the location, said in an email Wednesday. “The more containers, the more time and effort it takes to sort out what is what, how it can/should be sorted and what ultimately to do with it.”
The materials run the gamut and include “flammables, corrosives, toxic substances, water-reacting substances, potential explosives and other dangerous chemicals,” reads an EPA website that details the efforts, launched on March 29. That’s on top of asbestos inside the brick structure that the city of Ogden has already removed.
But when the cleanup is complete, Mark Johnson, Ogden’s chief administrative officer, expects the building will be prepared for demolition, maybe in October or November. Then will come redevelopment, the ultimate goal, he and other city leaders hope.
At the same time, he and Ben Nadolski, chairman of the Ogden City Council, are defending the city’s 2017 deal to acquire the old structure from the prior owners, Utah-Smith LC, affiliated with the late Bert Smith, founder of Smith & Edwards, the sprawling Farr West retail outlet. The deal garnered criticism from some at Tuesday’s meeting of the Ogden Redevelopment Agency and the cleanup was the focus of a story published jointly on Monday by the Utah Investigative Journalism Project and Salt Lake Tribune.
The initial deal to acquire the building would have cost the city $1.09 million, but that was later renegotiated down to $400,000 in light of the expected cleanup the site needed. As part of the deal, Utah-Smith received a waiver relieving it of any liability in the remediation efforts, according to a city council statement.
Cirilo Franco, an Ogden resident, was among those who addressed the council on the deal. The waste inside the structure — unused except for storage for many years — stood out for him.
“I, too, was baffled learning about the sale and could not imagine how the city would purchase a building without realizing what they were purchasing and maybe that’s just the norm,” he said.
Johnson, for his part, said Wednesday that city leaders had acquired the building knowing remediation would be necessary, though maybe the extent of the required cleanup wasn’t totally clear at first. The deal with Utah-Smith, he added, was “the right thing to do” given the uncertainty about what would have come of the structure had it remained in Utah-Smith hands.
Nadolski, addressing the criticism at Tuesday’s meeting, focused on the potential danger to the Weber River posed by the chemicals in the Swift structure.
“I’m really proud of a city that would say we’re going to step up and we’re going to protect that asset,” Nadolski said. “Can you imagine if those things made it into the river, what that would mean for our reputation?”
Even before the city bought the Swift building, Johnson said rumors had swirled about what was inside. “There has been folklore about that building for years. Mr. Smith was a notorious collector,” he said. However, he added, it was private property and the city couldn’t take any sort of legal action, say, without probable cause about possible mishandling of contaminants inside.
The EPA is footing the bill for the cleanup and later, when it’s done, agency officials will figure out who should cover the final cost, yet to be determined, according to Johnson. He said some of the chemicals on the site come from the U.S. Department of Defense, possibly acquired by Smith when he bought lots of surplus military items from the government.
“What the costs are, we hope we can mitigate. We hope enough of this will be charged somewhere else and our citizens don’t have to bear the burden of it,” Johnson told the City Council at Tuesday’s meeting. But he pondered the alternative of doing nothing and alluded to the threat of a disastrous fire at the facility before cleanup began, before the quantity of chemicals inside became clear — a possible threat to the lives of firefighters.
Though the current EPA focus is on materials contained in the building, Johnson expressed confidence that the Swift building contamination hasn’t spread to the ground below the structure. It originally served as a meatpacking plant and was used as a warehouse by Utah-Smith. “We feel very, very certain that groundwater has not been affected,” he said.
Peronard of the EPA, though, said he can’t say for sure because ground testing is beyond the scope of his efforts.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has been working with the city “looking at both potential impacts to the soils and groundwater,” Peronard said. City and UDEQ reps are to meet next week “to talk about those next steps and issues.”
55-GALLON DRUMS, SHARPIE-SIZED TUBES
Though some chemicals on the site apparently come from the military, the EPA also noted that a chemical manufacturer at one time leased the building, “leaving its large inventory behind” when it left.
Indeed, the variety of chemicals and compounds found inside the structure, still subject to testing, is extensive, numbering in the hundreds, the EPA estimates. The EPA cites the presence of lube oil, hydraulic fluid, solvents, toluene and more. Some of the substances are being treated and neutralized onsite, according to the EPA.
Whatever the case, the tens of thousands of containers the EPA is discovering range widely in size, from 55-gallon drums, or bigger, down to tubes the size of a Sharpie. EPA workers have accounted for more than 95% of containers in the building “so we’re down to mostly treating, bulking and disposing of wastes,” Peronard said.
He, like Nadolski and Johnson, lauded the city’s decision to press for the cleanup.
Setting aside questions of who will ultimately pay for the cleanup, “the city purchasing the property has facilitated the easiest path forward for this cleanup,” he said. “All of the normal access and liability issues have been put aside and we were allowed to get right to work.”