Cleanup of Bemberg site in negotiation

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   Members of Tennessee Department of Environment, the City of Elizabethton, current owners of Bemberg Industrial Center and former owners of American Bemberg plant met Oct. 18 in Elizabethton to tour the former industrial complex and discuss cleanup options.
   Commissioner Milton J. Hamilton Jr. issued the order July 5, instructing the primary responsible parties to complete a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study on Cherokee Industrial Park and to initiate the RI/FS process on Bemberg.
   All potentially liable parties -- including the City of Elizabethton, Charles and John Miller, El Paso Natural Gas Inc., and the Von Cannon Group -- appealed the Commissioner's Order for the Bemberg/Cherokee Industrial Park site, which was added to the state Superfund list in May 1985.
   Tom McIntyre of TDEC's Office of General Counsel said that at the day-long October meeting, all concerned parties toured the facility and ... "floated some ideas to solve these orders that had been issued by the state.
   "I would typify it as a brainstorming type of meeting, except it went a little past that. We moved in the right direction toward resolving this but there was no decision made. Right now, we're anticipating further negotiations between the parties," he said.
   Another meeting has not been scheduled, according to McIntyre; however, he is in contact with counsels for the PRP's.
   "Whenever we identify a site and the Commissioner's Order is issued and it's appealed, it becomes a contested case under the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, and that means it can only be resolved in one of several ways: One is by an agreed order, or one would be by a hearing.
   "It is preferential to settle these by an agreed order because, quite frankly, the parties -- and the division is a party, too, in a contested case -- are much, much more capable of arriving at a solution that is beneficial to both the community and the individual party than if it's thrown out in front of a board and the board has to make a decision in an afternoon," McIntyre said.
   "It may seem to people who are not familiar with the process that these things just drag on forever and nobody does anything. That's not entirely true."
   The first step is to complete a remedial investigation and feasibility study.
   "In this case particularly, that's probably the most cost intensive thing," he said. "We're very optimistic about this site that there will not be extensive cleanup necessary, but I can't say for certain until the remedial investigation is concluded," he said.
   On Feb. 4, 1992, the City of Elizabethton in a consent order with the Solid Waste Disposal Control Board agreed to perform a RI/FS and work plan on plots 5-8 of Cherokee Industrial Park. Those were to be completed in 4-1/2 years, however, the feasibility study and subsequent remedial requirements remain unfinished, according to the state.
   At the October meeting, David Ornduff, planning director for the city, told attendees that Elizabethton has spent all it can afford to spend on the site -- around $500,000.
   McIntyre said the state is not going to require the parties to go back and redo anything that's already been done.
   "We're not trying to increase the cost," he said. "The state is moving responsibly toward a conclusion of this matter. I'm optimistic about this site, to tell you the truth. The cosmetic side of it is not our concern. It's a great building. It should be a historic site.
   "I was told that the building was built in 1927 by the Germans. After World War I, they were so militarily inclined that they built some of those walls five feet thick just so they could sustain an artillery barrage. The building itself is an architectural novelty. If it's cleaned up, a lot of things could happen," he said.
   Charles Von Cannon, principal owner of the Bemberg building, has been in a constant struggle to preserve the plant complex since he and Richard Lorge purchased it along 11.2 acres in 1988.
   Von Cannon has been wounded in hand-to-hand combat with vandals, expended thousands of dollars on attorney fees, and has had an ongoing war of words with TDEC officials, the city, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, even Gov. Don Sundquist who reportedly once referred to the Bemberg building as "ugly" and said it should be demolished.
   "The governor got a letter from me after he said what he said," during a visit to Elizabethton, Von Cannon said.
   "I told him what I thought, and what I thought was, 'You've got no right to talk about tearing down private property. Since when is 'ugly' a reason for tearing it down? If that's true, I wouldn't be here now," he said.
   On a recent tour of the facility, Von Cannon showed members of the STAR staff some of the improvements which have been made to the building, including a state-of-the-art infrared heating system, new water and sewer lines, renovated office and industrial space and a new roof on the western portion of the building.
   Vandals and thieves have cost him an exorbitant amount of money in repairs.
   "I'll bet you there wasn't a wire in here 3 feet long that they hadn't pulled for the copper," he said.
   "What was there here before? A place for the gangs to fight in the powerhouse -- and that's a matter of record -- a place for them to write graffiti, a place for them to use baseball bats to break out the windows, a place for the 'druggies,' because I found syringes by the 5 gallon bucketfuls -- at least one that I collected," he said.
   When tanks and pipes were pulled from the building and salvaged for scrap metal, doors were removed or large holes punched through the concrete and exterior brick walls to bring them out.
   "They (the city) should have made them put the doors back up. But they didn't. They left it. You see the brick around that opening?," he said, pointing to a massive area now replaced with brick.
   "That used to be a jagged hole. The tanks in there wouldn't come out so they just knocked a hole in the wall and brought them out and left the holes."
   Von Cannon said he spent about $6,000 on reconnecting Schedule 40 PVC drain pipes after they were damaged by vandals.
   "Somebody came in one time and got in the stairwell and they took a hammer and broke every one of those white pipes. Schedule 40 is pretty hard to break," he said.
   Von Cannon cut down Princess trees which once shaded the former powerhouse. The trees, though Oriental, were named after Princess Pauline of Russia, he said. "Every Chinese father built a hope chest for his daughters out of this wood."
   Thick glass tiles which again are in vogue in business and housing construction, once provided natural lighting for the building except for where the Princess trees stood; however, vandals made quick work of those, breaking all that weren't protected by the trees.
   "How in the hell do you break a glass tile?" Von Cannon asked. "They're tough."
   The second level of the building sports a double tier office with gorgeous wooden floors.
   "I found places where they had piled up lumber and wood everywhere and set it on fire. The first thing I did when I got here was I started collecting the wood and burning it," he said.
   On the main building in the loading dock area, huge double doors were ripped from their hinges.
   "There wasn't a door up down through here," Von Cannon said, pointing to the loading dock. He located the original doors and rehung them, using a lifter.
   "They weigh 600 pounds per half, and I put those suckers up myself," he said proudly.
   As a matter of fact, he does a lot of the work himself, even mowing the perimeter. It was on one of those occasions that he was attacked.
   Von Cannon emptied out a duffel bag containing an assortment of pry bars, knives, a machete, and used syringes he has recovered from vandals and trespassers.
   "The one that scared the 'H' out of me was this one right here," he said, displaying a long blade knife.
   His attacker "must have been 20 or 25 years old. He was right-handed. He was whacking and I beat his hands until they were absolutely a bloody pulp. He was trying to cut me. The thing I'm pretty sure that was correct is, he wasn't paying me a social visit.
   "He never did say anything. He didn't say 'Ouch! Quit!' ... It was as though he didn't even feel it," Von Cannon said.
   During an attack last year, he was cut on the face, right between the eyes. "I only feel a little dent now," he said, rubbing his forehead.
   "I was mowing and this yellow Toyota came in. These two guys that looked like 'H' warmed over -- scruffy, and I'm telling you, thin -- got out and I said, 'Could I help you? Are you looking for work. If you are, you need to go to the employment office.'
   "They said, 'No, we're just looking around.'
   "I said, 'I've seen that car somewhere before,' and where I'd seen it was that morning about 6:30 or 7 a.m. They had cut down the power cable to the lift station.
   "I said, 'Let me step down here and get your license number' ... I took a step and this one came at me," striking him in the head.
   "The police think it might have been a pistol," he said.
   Von Cannon's attackers took off and he went back to mowing.
   Later, the plant manager from Chemtec, one of his tenants, saw him and said, "God Almighty, Von, you're bleeding!"
   Von Cannon thought it was just sweat.
   "He said, 'You need to go to the emergency room.'
   "I said, 'No, I don't have the time.' But I did. Two hours later, 'allegedly,' I'd been beat up. I had a $400 hospital bill for 'allegedly,' " he said.
   (Next Sunday, Part II.)