Bemberg owner: 'Corporate vandals trying to do me in'

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September 1997 announced plans to add the American Bemberg Plant to its National Priorities List of Superfund sites, meaning EPA could require immediate cleanup action if warranted.
   Subsequently, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which conducts health assessments for sites proposed for the list, evaluated Bemberg and in February 1999, released a public health assessment which basically found it presents "no apparent public health hazard."
   EPA considers the Bemberg complex and Cherokee Industrial Park one large site. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation several years ago split the site into two files: one for Bemberg Industrial Complex and another for Cherokee Industrial Park.
   The industrial park was cleaned up under the state Division of Solid Waste Management in 1986 and completed under the state Division of Superfund. Though certain areas have undergone remediation, there are hot spots that need to be readdressed, and the state wants the City of Elizabethton, which owns the industrial park, to complete a remedial investigation/feasibility study to determine the extent of contamination.
   The city, with approval from TDEC, has sold seven of the 12 parcels for industrial development and has asked to be apportioned out of the TDEC Commissioner's Order issued in July which instructed the primary responsible parties to complete the RI/FS and develop a work plan. The parties then would be required to come up with a schedule to complete those actions. If the parties refused, the state could bring in its contractors to complete the actions, with the responsible parties footing the bill.
   On May 17, ATC Associates Inc. of Nashville -- a state contractor -- was given notice to proceed on completing a RI/FS at Cherokee Industrial Park at a cost of $26,795. However, all PRP's -- the City of Elizabethton, Charles and John Miller, El Paso Natural Gas Inc., and the Von Cannon Group -- appealed the Commissioner's Order, putting further action on hold. At the Bemberg Industrial Complex site, the state is basically at square one, according to TDEC.
   "We first must get a sampling plan to initiate a full remedial investigation," one state official said.
   Bemberg's primary owner, Charles Von Cannon, asks, "When is enough, enough?
   "I used to have my friends from Johnson City (TDEC) come in and climb the fence instead of coming through the gate. ... They just run through here like doctors at a psychiatric ward," he said. "I've seen more white coats than you'd see at the hospital."
   According to TDEC officials, the federal ATSDR study was a "snapshot" of what needs to be done.
   "They came in looking for one thing: Is there an 'imminent health hazard'? We're looking at the whole site for remedial investigation; we're not just looking for an imminent health hazard."
   The state official said that the published results looked like the feds had done a full remedial investigation when, in fact, they were only looking to see whether there was an imminent health hazard which could justify a removal action.
   "There's a big difference," he said. "But it didn't come out this way."
   One area which has been looked at time and again, according to Von Cannon, is the basement. The ATSDR found that contaminants in the basement of the Bemberg building did not likely have an adverse health effect on former workers, but stated that if the basement is reused, it might have to be cleaned up.
   The basement has a poured concrete floor with a spill containment system. "That's why you never had the leaching they were saying you had," according to Von Cannon. "They didn't prove it. Why? It wasn't there."
   Von Cannon worked at Bemberg during its heyday as a supervisor in the second-floor chemical lab.
   "I was here 14 years, and by God, if anybody knows this place chemically, I knew it. It wasn't like I was out sweeping floors," he said.
   The federal study also said that future development of the now closed 11-acre landfill and unlined lagoon areas should create no adverse exposure or health impact, providing the city restricts development at the industrial park, which still has some hot spots for metals, arsenic, lead and beryllium, and three times the background level for copper sulfate, according to the state.
   Beryllium, a hazardous substance more widely used in Department of Energy operations, also has been found on the Miller property, but not at the Bemberg building, according to state records. The state contends it needs more than a flashlight tour of the basement to determine what is there.
   Von Cannon wonders where it will all end.
   "After the federal government said that the darned place posed no threat to onsite or offsite populations, what are they trying to do? It's now becoming a hassle because, after all, they spent 14 years crawling and climbing all over that place."
   He also is at odds with the City of Elizabethton over road access; with North American Rayon Corp. over an existing railroad spur; and with Wal-Mart for blocking road access.
   "If it isn't the little vandals, it's the corporate vandals that are trying to do me in," he said.
   About 150,000 square feet of the ground level of the Bemberg building is leased. "That's three times the spec building where the plastics people are down in the industrial park," Von Cannon said.
   "Here I have been busting my butt borrowing money at 8 percent interest, and they gave away at least over $300,000 to get that plastics company. They took my access to the power plant," where the former Elizabethton/Carter County Recycling Center was located.
   "They called it 179 Cherokee Park Drive. If it's given an address, there's bound to be a road to get to it. Anyway, I paid for a ramp to go into the second level for the recycling center. When they moved down to the river to the old North American/Bemberg filter plant, they (the city) then said I couldn't use the road that they had been using for their benefit to get to me for over five years."
   Von Cannon wrote the city about access, he said. "The letter I got back from the city manager said it was simply a 'path' and it's part of a lot that had been sold to W.A. Taylor.
   "They sold him seven acres of land. So he builds his building in conjunction with the road and assumes halfway from the road to the east is seven acres. One day, he gets to looking at that and says, 'Hey, I don't believe it's seven acres.' He has it surveyed, and it wasn't. It was five. He says, 'Where's my other two acres?'
   "As it turns out, the road was the other two acres. So then the city said, 'We can't let you use it, because the road is sold.' That's their mistake, not mine," he said.
   Von Cannon said he wrote City Manager Charles Stahl about an Arkansas company that wanted to lease the former recycling center space if they could have access to the industrial park road for their tractor-trailers. The company would provide 10 jobs, he said.
   "Stahl calls me back and says the mayor says we want the phone number of the company so we can call them. ... My first thought was, 'They don't believe me,' so I didn't see giving them the phone number.
   "What I had to do to get those jobs -- and they did come -- was to build a ramp to the ramp. The recycling center people always pulled their big garbage trucks into the building." With floors more than 20 inches thick, "It was strong enough to handle it," Von Cannon said.
   "The ramp went straight north and south and you could back straight in with a tractor-trailer, based on the length of it. So I had to build a ramp to the ramp. That only gets small stuff in. In order to load and unload tractor-trailer trucks off to the west of the big ramp, I'm working on a loading dock. I had to take down a fence and put up a new fence. It's going to cost me around $12,000 to get those 10 jobs, which I shouldn't have had to spend virtually anything because everything was already there.
   "They actually, in fact, cut off access," he said. "It's a part of the ongoing hassle of trying to do business when somebody apparently doesn't want you to do business."
   The west entrance to Bemberg is blocked by containers from Wal-Mart, Von Cannon said.
   "All you've got to do is go look up the deed and see that I own a great portion of that road from the Garden Center back. I pay taxes on it; I have paid taxes on it from day one. And yet they park their containers on it."
   Von Cannon said he also is involved in litigation regarding the former rail spur that ran between Bemberg and North American.
   "I own 51 feet from the west side of the rail spur toward Wal-Mart. I own the land under what was the spur."
   North American, however, took up the rail spur, he said, and now "I have them sued for taking the rail up. It's hard to get a train from one track to another without any track between it.
   "I hate to be in the middle of everything, but facts are facts," he said.
   "If whoever does the recruiting would help me get a tenant to utilize the rail spur and the three-acre room that is pretty close to it ... I could afford to put a roof maybe on the rest of it. That's a lot of space, but it would certainly lend itself to somebody that needed rail, because generally somebody that needs rail, needs a lot of roof space," he said.
   Inside Bemberg, along with new tenants, there is a warehouse area full of heat-treating equipment. "The guy that owned it left owing me money and owing the state money. The state had promised me that they wouldn't settle with the man that owed them money until he settled with me. You know what happened? The next thing I get is a letter signed by (Planning Director David) Ornduff and Mayor Sharpin releasing the guy -- and here I am holding the bag. But I still have the equipment," Von Cannon said.
   "Basically, it's as simple as this: If I had my money back, you couldn't run fast enough. Why would anyone risk their home, which is mortgaged against it? You tell me who else has climbed out on a limb that far? You tell me who else is stupid enough to climb out on a limb that far? You can't give up after a point because what happens is you get in a Catch-22."
   Von Cannon said that after the ATSDR report, the state told him he was going to get a "comfort letter" which he could take to a lending institution and borrow money.
   "Well, I started rearranging my financing when interest was about 6 percent, and then it started going up. The comfort letter didn't come. By the time I got somebody that would loan me money, the interest rate was 8 percent. Shortly after that, it went down 10 times, but I'm hung at 8 percent. I'm trying to refinance but I don't know if I can swing that or not based upon the present status of the state being involved again," he said.
   "You never know who has the project. The state never told me they had the project this last time. They just wanted to find out who was going to pay for the $500,000 that the city had spent (on the industrial park study).
   Von Cannon canceled further improvement projects at Bemberg after the Commissioner's Order was issued in July, he said, "because I'm convinced there's nothing that's going to satisfy anybody except it be on the ground."