Chemical fire in Rochester on July 13 / photo via City of Beaver Falls Fire Department
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A week after a chemical cloud shadowed the county, the state is continuing work to remediate the Rochester riverfront site that caused the problem.

Two buildings at 25 New York Ave., once operated as The Pool Doctor and Beaver Alkali Products, have been vacant for six to eight years, said Rochester Fire Chief Mike Mamone III.

The former owner and operator, Harold Davidson, has been dead for about a decade, Mamone said. Prior to that, Davidson had operated at the site for decades.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is still referring to him as the owner, but Mamone said Davidson’s son, Brad Davidson of the Ellwood City area, initially showed up at the incident last Saturday night.

Mamone said the son told him he and a bank creditor now own the building.

Mamone said the elder Davidson once created his own pool chemicals at the site.

“He had a whole laboratory in there,” Mamone said.

DEP said numerous unmarked, mismarked and leaking containers are still on site creating a serious hazard that the state discovered while working on a neighboring site. Mamone said officials didn’t realize the situation existed until DEP became involved a few weeks ago.

Mamone said his crews arrived on scene ready to battle a fire. Instead, as they approached the site, he realized something else was going on. The plume was sort of green in color.

“We pulled out and called the Beaver County Hazmat Team,” Mamone said. Hazmat officials in green encapsulated suits went in and determined it was a chlorine gas release. Safety instructions called for copious amounts of water to keep the plume from spreading, he said.

Chemical fire in Rochester on July 13 / photo via City of Beaver Falls Fire Department
Chemical fire in Rochester on July 13 / photo via City of Beaver Falls Fire Department

Firefighters started pumping 3,000 gallons a minute from two aerial trucks. Then an actual fire broke out. Firefighters brought the initial blaze and a second chemical release the next morning under control.

Mamone said there were no injuries, but there was damage to the fire trucks – a sticky material on the stainless that will need to be professionally removed.

The following is a series of questions from BeaverCountian.com in regard to the situation and answers from Lauren Fraley, community relations coordinator with the state DEP’s Southwest Regional Office.

Q: What is the history of the affected property? Who owned it last, and who owns it now?

A: DEP has identified Harold B. Davidson as the owner of the Pool Doctor – Beaver Alkali Products property which consists of two buildings.

Q: How did the DEP become involved with the property? And what is its involvement? Are contractors handling the project, and who are they?

A: DEP became aware of the Pool Doctor – Beaver Alkali Products site in Rochester, Beaver County, when staff were overseeing remediation of an adjacent property. At that time, the facility owner claimed the business was still operating.

Because the site did not operate under any DEP permits, the department’s ability to compel the owner to take an action was limited.

More recently, DEP attempted to have the owner remediate the site but the owner was not willing or capable of doing so. DEP had also been in contact with local officials and emergency services on their concerns at the property

On July 1, 2019, DEP initiated a prompt interim response under the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (HSCA) for the site. DEP determined a threat to human health and the environment existed from the ongoing release of materials and risk to persons entering the buildings, which prompted DEP’s response.

DEP’s contractor, Baker/O’Brian & Gere Remediation Solutions Joint Venture and its subcontractors, had been working to make the buildings safe for entry so the chemicals could be sampled, properly disposed of, and prevented from further migrating off the site or near the river. This scope of this work has changed since a chemical reaction led to a fire in the smaller of two buildings on the site on July 12, 2019.

Q: How long were chemicals there and how long did officials know that the chemicals were still inside the structure? What chemicals and how much of each were inside?

A: The full inventory of chemicals on site is unknown, as DEP or its contractors have not been able to access all parts of both buildings. Many drums and containers of chemicals are unmarked or mislabeled. DEP is aware of significant amounts of chlorine and other chemicals associated with a pool chemical business.

Q: Is there an investigation regarding any liability?

A: The Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (HSCA) provides DEP with enforcement authority to force the persons who are responsible for releases of hazardous substances to conduct cleanup actions or to repay public funds spent on a DEP-funded cleanup action.

Under the provisions of HSCA, most HSCA sites involve bankrupt facility owners, abandoned facilities and inappropriate disposal of hazardous substances. As a general rule, HSCA sites do not include active facilities with financially viable owners.

Q: Reports have indicated DEP had just started work remediating the site when the fire occurred. Can you provide details on what exactly was being done? What sparked the fire and were the chemicals being removed at the time?

A: DEP and its contractors began working at the site on July 1, 2019. An exothermic chemical reaction occurred within one of the buildings between 9 and 10 PM on Friday, July 12, 2019 and DEP received notification from its contractor of a plume at the site.

Materials were not being actively removed from the building or prepared for disposal at that time. The reaction and subsequent fire appear to have started from a reaction within the smaller building that almost completely collapsed on June 24, 2019.

Q: What is DEP’s plan going forward with the site?

A: The goal of DEP’s prompt interim response at this HSCA site is designed to remove the chemicals from the buildings that cause the greatest risk to human health or the environment. This is not the same as a full site remediation.

All containerized chemicals have been removed from the footprint of the smaller of the two buildings on the site. Plans for waste removal will begin on Monday.

Because of the partial building collapse on June 24, 2019, fire on July 12, 2019, and the associated challenges to access the chemicals, the smaller building on the site was completely demolished.

This was not part of the original scope of DEP’s prompt interim response under the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (HSCA), which was originally limited to the removal of chemicals from the buildings that cause the greatest risk to human health or the environment. The foundation will be filled with clean concrete, clean fill, graded and revegetated.

As DEP shifts its focus to the larger building on the site, which also has a partially collapsed roof, it awaits a report from a structural engineer, which will largely dictate how the building can safely be accessed to remove stored drums and a laboratory of chemicals.

The project to remove and properly dispose of the chemicals in the two buildings is expected to take weeks. DEP and its contractors have largely reverted to normal operations of conducting work during weekday daylight hours and maintaining a limited 24/7 presence for monitoring and security.

Q: Should residents be concerned about any long-term contamination of the environment? Also, should residents be concerned about any health problems, short or long term?

A: DEP initiated its response because of a threat to human health from direct contact with the contamination on the site: the leaking drums and the waste material that has leaked from the drums.

The ongoing release of waste materials due to the continued worsening conditions of the buildings poses a threat to the environment so DEP is actively working to safely remove all hazardous substances in a timely manner but is working carefully due to the conditions of the infrastructure. DEP refers any questions about health impacts to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Q: How is this project being funded? What is the anticipated cost of the cleanup, including any costs related to the fire?

A: The Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act (HSCA) provides DEP with the funding and authority to conduct cleanup actions at sites where hazardous substances have been released. The commonwealth and federal governments also have funded cleanup programs (HSCA and Superfund, respectively) where if the responsible party or parties are not doing the work, the government can step in and undertake the work necessary to eliminate threats to public health and the environment through an interim and/or long term remediation process.

The state’s fund is almost depleted at this time and the Legislature has not yet proposed a bill to re-enact what has been a vitally important statutory public health and environmental safety protection fund and a key economic development driver to create sites that can be reused.

Because of the unknown factors with this site and the change in scope due to the fire on July 12, 2019, DEP cannot provide an anticipated cleanup cost at this time.

Q: How was the fire handled?

A: DEP refers you to the local fire department for specifics on their handling of the fire.

As to DEP’s role, between 9 and 10 PM on Friday, July 12, 2019, DEP received notification from its contractor of a plume at the site. DEP, HSCA contractors, multiple fire departments, and Beaver County HAZMAT responded.

Local fire, emergency responders, and county HAZMAT oversaw the extinguishing of the fire and a chlorine plume was knocked down, but the building is unstable and there were additional chemicals spilled inside, which have since been removed.

Q: At its meeting on Monday, Rochester Council President Ben Rader claimed that DEP was to blame for the incident: “I’m blaming DEP for this because they’re the ones who took over the site down there and they didn’t remove it properly … They dragged their feet and mixed a few things that shouldn’t have been mixed,” Rader said. Can you comment on this?

A: Our staff and contractors were working at an incredibly challenging site due to the structural instability of the buildings and the quantity of unmarked, mislabeled, and improperly stored chemicals that are incompatible with other chemicals in the same area.

We understand and share the community’s concerns about this site and took the proper steps within our authority. Our inspectors were the ones to discover the facility’s conditions during an inspection of an adjacent site and attempted to work with the owner on remediation.

When the owner could not remediate, we initiated a prompt interim response under HSCA. When conditions at the site were such when inaction could have resulted in a threat to human health or the environment.

Ultimately, it is incumbent upon the property/business owner to properly handle and dispose of chemicals on their property and we acted within our authority.

Lori Boone
Lori Boone (DeLauter) has more than 20 years of experience in investigative and community journalism. She’s won more than a dozen regional, state and national journalism awards.

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Oh Brother
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Oh Brother

YAWN…scratch…scratch…zzz.zzz….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……….

M.T. Pockets
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M.T. Pockets

Well, in my opinion it is very obvious who is to blame for this… The lion’s share goes to the DEP’s Contractor. The building and chemicals sat for 10 years without mixing, Then as soon as they start moving stuff around it mixes? The contractors were on sight when it happened. They are the ones that noticed it and called it in. It’s not rocket science to figure out what happened. I really don’t think someone broke in just to start this mess. Of course the owner also bares some responsibility for leaving it in the condition it was in. However, The “trained professionals” did not take proper care when handling “unknown and miss-labeled” chemicals. It was their negligent actions that caused this. It should be the contractors insurance that bares the cost of this and not the tax payers through the DEP. The owner/ owner’s property insurance (if he has any) should also be partially responsible for cost. The DEP should be looking for a new contractor.

HOTSHOT
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HOTSHOT

The owner should be responsible for all the cost. And rochester should monitor buildings like this more close.