The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spent nine months and $1.8 million in an asbestos cleanup project that failed to end the long-running contamination dispute between a business owner and local authorities in Springfield, Illinois.
Despite the recent EPA cleanup of the former Pillsbury Mills plant, a circuit court judge in Sangamon County refused to lift an injunction earlier this month blocking owners from the site.
The judge cited earlier asbestos violations and continued unsafe conditions.
The EPA removed 2,200 tons of asbestos-contaminated debris, 1,160 cubic yards of bulk asbestos and considerable waste oil and chemicals.
Left behind was harder-to-reach asbestos within the buildings on the 18-acre site. This prompted local authorities to fence off the abandoned property to prevent trespassers from the danger spots.
“What has really been accomplished here? We’ve spent $1.8 million of taxpayers’ money,” part owner Joseph Chernis IV told the State Journal-Register. “Clearly, this is about money. It’s not about cleaning the place up.”
Asbestos is the naturally occurring mineral once used freely in construction and manufacturing throughout the 20th century. It was valued for its affordability, heat resistance and tensile strength.
It was used extensively until the early 1980s when its toxicity became so well known, leading to stricter regulations.
An exposure to asbestos fibers — that easily become airborne — can lead to serious health issues, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Chernis believes his company, P. Mills LLC, should be allowed to resume work at the salvage site, promising 45 percent of the proceeds toward additional cleanup costs.
His plan was to sell off parcels of the land in a surplus property auction earlier this year. That auction was blocked by contamination concerns.
The original flour milling plant, which was built in 1929, has been closed since 2001. It was once a booming Pillsbury processing and distribution factory that produced a wide range of products, including cereals, breads, flours, cornmeal and grits.
The emergency EPA cleanup began early in 2017, following the failure of P. Mills LLC to meet a series of court-ordered cleanup deadlines.
Chernis already has pleaded guilty to federal charges of improper asbestos cleanup. He is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 11 in U.S. District Court.
EPA project coordinator Kevin Turner told the State Journal-Register the remaining asbestos is not a threat to nearby residents, but it remains a hazard for anyone entering one of the remaining structures on the property.
“It’s an unknown amount [of asbestos], as I did bulk asbestos removal, not an asbestos abatement,” he said.
Turner said a complete abatement of asbestos, which is what P. Mills LLC would be required to do, would be a costly and more extensive operation than what the EPA recently finished.
Neighbors of the factory complex have complained for years about the abandoned property, which has been vandalized repeatedly and become an eyesore to the area.
It is a classic example of a problem facing many cities today. Laws requiring costly asbestos abatement often halt the demolition of out-of-date commercial structures that have become a nuisance to many neighborhoods.
Owners of the structures often are unwilling to pay — or unable to afford — the abatement. It leads to penalties and fines that add to their dilemma.