US EPA to provide funding to fast-track stalled cleanup of ruined Merrimac Paper mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, ranks project so that it will start within six months; cost of demolition and cleanup could reach US$500,000, says city building inspector

LAWRENCE, Massachusetts , June 4, 2014 () – The federal government will jump-start the stalled cleanup at the crumbling Merrimac Paper mill, providing what could be hundreds of thousands of environmental Superfund dollars to remove asbestos that is widespread through the maze of 27 buildings.

Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, Mayor Daniel Rivera and Deb Szaro, a regional administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, are scheduled to announce the federal grant outside the former South Canal Street mill at 3:30 p.m. today. Rivera's chief of staff, Lisa Torrisi, declined yesterday to say how much federal money will go into the cleanup, and spokespersons for Tsongas and the EPA could not be reached late yesterday.

The federal money would be provided under an EPA program that allows the agency to fast-track urgent environmental cleanups. In this instance, the EPA gave the Merrimac mill cleanup a ranking of two on a scale of three, meaning that the environmental threat is serious enough that remediation must begin within six months.

It was unclear yesterday who will pay for the demolition that would follow the environmental remediation.

The federal money would launch a cleanup that David Padellaro, the former city cop who owns the mill, has failed for years to carry out despite repeated orders from the city, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the state Superior and Housing courts. Padellaro bought the mill for $1 from Andover developer Stephen Stapinski in 2010, who sold it after he was unable to get the city's approval for a mixed-use development.

The effort to get the mill demolished went nowhere under former Mayor William Lantigua, but took on new urgency Jan. 13, 12 days after Rivera took office, when an inferno destroyed what was left of the historic three-story brick building that had been the street-front face of the mill since it was built in the 1880s.

The cause of the fire has not been determined.

Much of the asbestos, a carcinogen, in the building was sent airborne by the fire, and since then the ongoing collapse of beams and other structures in the building has released more.

Last month, the owner of a car dealership directly across South Canal Street from the original mill building said he has seen beams and other heavy debris come down since he opened the dealership on March 19.

"One day we heard things crash," said Jose Ramirez, owner of Merrimack Motors, describing conditions at the teetering remains of the building. "I saw part of the roof on the left cave in."

The city sued Padellaro in Housing Court and state Attorney General Martha Coakley sued him in Suffolk Superior Court to force him demolish the building destroyed in January and other structures damaged in earlier fires. At Coakley's request, Superior Court Judge Bonnie MacLeod blocked Padellaro from beginning the demolition until he submitted plans to the DEP for removing the asbestos and other contaminants on the site.

The DEP in April rejected Padellaro's plan, which called for simply burying the asbestos on the property, as "substantially inadequate. MacLeod ordered him to submit a rewritten plan by May 5, but Padellaro had not submitted the plan by last week, according to Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for Coakley.

The cost of the demolition and cleanup could reach $500,000, according to City Building Inspector Peter Blanchette. Earlier, Blanchette said he worried the city would be stuck with the bill, a possibility raised by one of Padellaro's lawyers.

"All this stuff is awfully expensive," Sal Tabit, who is representing Padellaro against the criminal charges in Housing Court, said after MacLeod ordered Padellaro to revise his clean-up plan to the DEP's satisfaction. "What happens if he can't do anything because he can't afford it? You can't get blood from a stone. Are you going to throw him in jail? (Then) the property is just going to sit there. The work won't get done. He's making every effort and turning over every stone to get the resources to do that."

Padellaro's financial headaches go beyond the cleanup and demolition at the mill.

He also owes more than $5.4 million in unpaid property taxes and water fees, much of which he inherited from Stapinski, the former owner. The debt makes him Lawrence's biggest tax deadbeat.

In her orders directing Padellaro to develop a clean-up plan, MacLeod also froze all of his assets and directed him to stop salvaging metals, bricks, machinery and other valuables at the mill.


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