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Asbestos Exposure at New York Beech-Nut Facility

By Shaniqua Williams

Posted on March 23rd, 2018

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency disposed removal of approximately 2,500 tons of asbestos-containing waste at the former Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp. plant after the company declined the federal asbestos cleanup order.

The Beech-Nut Packing Company was founded in 1891 in Canajoharie, New York. The company went on to earn a reputation for inventing the vacuum jar, a container which would allow the delivery of perishable food over long distances without the risk of spoilage. Initially, their range of products was relatively narrow, including dried beef, ham, and lard. However, over the next 25 years, the business came to grow substantially, with a financial profit of over $200,000, as they also began manufacturing spaghetti, peanut butter, caramel, marmalade, ketchup, coffee, as well as baby food.

Beech-Nut and Asbestos

While asbestos was fortunately not involved in the manufacturing process per se, the Beech-Nut facility was built with hazardous materials and the equipment workers came in contact with such as boilers, ovens, and insulation - also contained it. Unsurprisingly, the companies which sold asbestos construction products to Beech-Nut failed to provide a safety warning with regard to the carcinogenicity of the mineral. As a result, employees would unknowingly be exposed to toxic fibers during their shift, particularly when maintenance or repair work was taking place nearby, whereas those who were in charge of these jobs would return home covered with asbestos dust on their clothes, thereby endangering their family members as well.

Beech-Nut Refuses Federal Asbestos Cleanup Order

Today, large piles of asbestos debris are lying around the area where the original Beech-Nut facility was located, posing a serious health threat to residents and a tremendous source of environmental pollution. Although Beech-Nut executives had been aware of the presence of asbestos in the building for a long time, they still decided for selling it to Ohio developer Todd Clifford in 2012. Shortly after purchasing the property, Clifford hired B & B Recycling LLC to demolish the 27-acre structure, which was eventually carried out. Nevertheless, the developer abandoned the project after the facility was taken down, leaving behind enormous amounts of asbestos waste, and scrap metal. In 2014, he further sold the former Beech-Nut facility to Jeffrey Wendel, one of his business associates.

In May 2017, Beech-Nut opposed EPA's demand to clean up the asbestos waste at the former Canajoharie facility. After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required Beech-Nut to have the hazardous waste properly disposed of from the site of their former plant, the company stated it was not their responsibility to take care of the asbestos left behind by Todd Clifford. "We agree the asbestos issue in Canajoharie should be resolved, however, Beech-Nut shouldn't be ordered by the EPA to clean up an issue we didn't create. Beech-Nut has not owned the property since 2013. In fact, the property has been sold twice since we owned it", company spokeswoman Kirsten Whipple said. Moreover, Whipple insisted that the company had found out about the issue of asbestos only in 2016, when they had been notified by EPA. "At the time Beech-Nut sold the property in 2013, we had complied with the environmental standards regarding asbestos-containing materials without creating health risks for employees or the community", the spokeswoman added.

To minimize asbestos exposure, EPA workers came up with a temporary solution, namely sealing off the piles of debris and the exterior walls of the building. This was going to prevent toxic fibers from infiltrating the environment for approximately six months. At the time, the costs of demolition and cleanup were estimated by local and county authorities to be around $10 million.

Montgomery County Receives Permission from EPA to Remove the Asbestos Waste from the Canajoharie Beech-Nut Plant

On November 16, 2017, Montgomery County and EPA signed a voluntary agreement to attend to the asbestos hazard at the former Beech-Nut facility in Canajoharie, New York. "I commend County Executive Matthew Ossenfort and the Montgomery County Legislators for their leadership and commitment to protecting the community and public health. This agreement is a great example of what can be accomplished when federal, state and local governments work together", said EPA Regional Administrator Pete Lopez.

The cleanup project is once again expected to cost between $6 million and $10 million. To prompt the asbestos cleanup, the county was provided with $800,000, $300,000 of which coming from a National Grid grant and the outstanding from a state Restore NY grant. Nonetheless, Montgomery County will seek additional grants to keep the project ongoing, according to Andrew Santillo, a spokesman for Ossenfort. The asbestos cleanup project is expected to be completed within three months. "The goal is to have this site, sometime next year, shovel-ready for redevelopment. Rather than a burden, we're trying to look at it as an opportunity", Santillo added.

Matt Ossenfort, Montgomery County Executive, is also very content with the outcome: "Nowadays how often do you see all those entities - Democrats, Republicans, different layers of government - all working together with a common goal. That to me is what is so exciting", Ossenfort said. Beech-Nut executives refused to comment on the decision.