Why has it taken more than 2 years to clean up dangerous chemicals abandoned in a Cleveland neighborhood? Carl Monday investigates

Why did toxic waste cleanup take two years?

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Nicole Sims has been living on the outskirts of Cleveland's Slavic Village neighborhood for almost 11 years.

She remembers when Ensign Products Co. on East 76th Street when up in flames in June 2016. But what Sims doesn't recall, is anyone ever telling her about the hazardous waste still lingering in her neighborhood more than two years after the rust-proofing business burnt down.

"So we got toxic chemicals around where we stay at and we didn't even know it," Sims said, after Cleveland 19 Chief Investigator Carl Monday alerted her to the dangerous waste left behind after the 2016 fire. "That's terrible. We should know what's going on in our area, in our community, on our street."

Cleveland 19's investigative team discovered 450 barrels of chemicals -- many of them ruptured -- that were abandoned by Ensign Products following the fire, leaving residents like Sims and her children exposed to potential danger for two years while the toxic site sat untouched.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently cleaning up the hazardous waste and removing the fire debris, we wanted to know why it has taken so long and why residents living near the Ensign Products site weren't notified about the potential dangers in their neighborhood.

Some of the debris and barrels of chemicals left behind at Ensign Products after the June 2016 fire (Source: U.S. EPA)

The Ensign Products Co., a rust-proofing and lubricating oil manufacturer, operated from 1967 until a fire destroyed the business on June 13, 2016. The Cleveland Division of Fire responded to the blaze and nearby residents were evacuated for several hours. The Ohio EPA also provided technical assistance, tracking runoff from the fire.

According to the Ohio EPA, the water going into the sewers did contain some oil residue, but it flowed to the waste water treatment plant, where pH readings of the water were neutral. The Ohio EPA also monitored the air around the facility and told Cleveland 19 "no elevated levels were detected of volatile organic compounds, ammonia or explosive gas."

After the fire, Ensign Products went out of business and the site, located at 3528 East 76th St., was left abandoned.

In January 2017, Charles Wisniewski, the owner of the property, was ordered by the Department of Building and Housing to correct multiple building code violations at the site. The case ended up in court, where Wisniewski was found guilty of five misdemeanor counts of failing to comply with the Building Department's orders. According to the city, he was sentenced to 300 hours of community service in lieu of a $15,000 fine.

In July 2017, more than a year after the fire, records show a resident complained to the city's Department of Building and Housing about fire debris and illegal dumping at the Ensign site.

According to the city, in November 2017, someone with Cleveland Fire Station 11 drove past the former Ensign Products site and noticed the fire debris, along with hundreds of 55-gallon drums full of chemicals, had not been removed.

On Nov. 16, 2017, the Cleveland Division of Fire notified the Ohio EPA that oil-related waste remained in the building fire debris. The Ohio EPA says it was not able to inspect the facility until Dec. 6, 2017 due to structural issues.

Records show when state inspectors arrived at the site on Dec. 6, rusted and burnt 55-gallon drums were visible in the fire debris.

Hundreds of barrels of chemicals were abandoned by Ensign Products after the June 2016 fire (Source: U.S. EPA)

"Some of the drums were bulging due to the heat of the fire," Ohio EPA inspectors noted in their report. "It was evident that many of them had ruptured and the contents had burned."

On Dec. 13, 2017, the Ohio EPA sent Notice of Violation letters to Wisniewski and Birney Walker, the owner of Ensign Products. Under Ohio Administrative Code 3745-52-11, any person who generates a waste must determine if that waste is a hazardous waste. The Ohio EPA recommended that Ensign "Immediately evaluate the wastes to determine if they are hazardous."

Cleveland 19 left phone messages with the attorneys representing Wisniewski and Walker. We have not received a response from Wisniewski's attorney, but the attorney representing Walker said they are cooperating with the Ohio EPA.

The Ohio EPA also referred the Ensign site to the U.S. EPA for evaluation in December 2017, and in early January, the U.S. EPA started emergency stabilization procedures. Samples were collected and laboratory results indicated that wastes left on site were hazardous.

On May 14, 2018, the U.S. EPA began "a time critical removal action to control, characterize, remove, and dispose of hazardous waste including drums, containers, building debris, and underground storage tanks left abandoned at the site."

"The fire damaged the integrity of a lot of the drums," said Jason Cashmere, the U.S. EPA on-scene coordinator at the Ensign Site.

"Initially, it was a threat to the community trail," said Cashmere, referring to the Morgana Run Trail, which runs alongside the Ensign Products site. "You had storage of hazardous wastes that were not compatible with each other. They were staged right next to each other. That could have caused a chemical reaction and possibly a fire."

"Currently, the site is no longer a threat to neighboring residents or community trail users," said Cashmere. He told us the air is being tested on a regular basis and there is also a security guard protecting the site when crews aren't working.

"Is it possible six months ago some of the chemicals could have leaked out to the adjoining property? To the home next door?" Monday asked Cashmere. "There's a potential for that," he replied. "That's something we're going to follow up with. We'll monitor at the property line to see if there's any impact along the property line."

We asked Cashmere why there was such a long delay in cleaning up the Ensign site. He says the U.S. EPA didn't get involved until the Ohio EPA requested federal assistance.

So why did it take more than a year and a half for the Ohio EPA to refer the toxic site to the U.S. EPA?

In a statement to Cleveland 19, the Ohio EPA said, "Cleveland Fire Department communicated to Ohio EPA that it would work directly with US EPA regarding this facility. It was not until Nov. 2017 that Cleveland reached out again to Ohio EPA. Ohio then formally requested US EPA involvement." 

The city says it would never reach out directly to the U.S. EPA, because the proper protocol would be to go through the state EPA first.

According to the Office of the Mayor, once the Ohio EPA stepped in and began its own investigation in June 2016, the state agency had the lead and it would be up to them to request assistance from the U.S. EPA if they thought it was necessary.

Cleveland 19 has requested a copy of the Cleveland Division of Fire's investigation into the June 2016 fire. We've also requested a copy of the Ohio EPA's post-fire findings.

In the meantime, the U.S. EPA expects to complete the Ensign cleanup within the next few weeks. Cashmere says the cost of the cleanup so far is around $270,000. He expects the total cost will be around $500,000 by the time all of the waste is removed.

According to Cashmere, the waste is all going to a government-approved treatment facility.

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