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Tonawanda business accused of stashing hazardous chemicals

Federal authorities are guarding around-the-clock a chemical cache they allege a Town of Tonawanda business haphazardly stockpiled.

The state Office of the Attorney General is also looking into whether charges are warranted against Morgan Materials at 380 Vulcan St. and its owner, Donald Sadkin.

For the second time in less than two decades, Sadkin’s Morgan Materials was taken over by state and federal environmental authorities for emergency cleanup for the same reason – haphazardly stockpiling thousands of drums of hazardous chemicals.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began its occupation of Morgan’s nearly seven-acre warehouse complex on Vulcan Street in late November at the request of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The EPA is conducting what’s expected to emerge as a yearlong emergency cleanup at the site.

The warehouse complex where the thousands of chemical drums and sack cloths were allegedly haphazardly stored is hard to spot from the roadside at 380 Vulcan St. EPA officials said "the average person going up and down Vulcan Street" won't notice anything out of the ordinary during its cleanup at Morgan Materials. (T.J. Pignataro/Buffalo News)

The move occurred after the company allegedly failed to comply with numerous requests from state environmental officials to bring the company’s inventory into lawful compliance voluntarily.

“He’s being cited for improper storage of the materials,” said Mike Basile, EPA spokesman.

EPA officials are sifting through 55-gallon drums and linen sacks filled with the chemicals, which include corrosives, flammable materials, resins and epoxies.

They’re in the process of immediately separating materials that could be volatile with one another, and taking inventory of what’s stored in the entire complex.

Some of what’s been found so far includes abrasives, dyes, raw materials for latex paints, paint pigments, silicones and solvents and ammonium chloride.

“When you’re talking thousands of drums, that’s going to take a significant amount of time to test,” Basile said.

Here are some of the drums of chemicals that the EPA alleges were improperly stored, creating a dangerous condition, at Morgan Materials' warehouse complex at 380 Vulcan St. in the Town of Tonawanda. (EPA photo)

Morgan Materials business model was to acquire chemical raw materials and blend them into new product mixtures for resale.

Sadkin is not allowed in the warehouses during the investigation and Morgan Materials is not permitted to receive any more chemicals at the site.

“His business is basically shut down,” Basile said.

Sadkin did not respond to numerous calls for comment.

State environmental officials began honing in on Morgan’s business earlier this year during a routine inspection.

“They were somewhat of an entity we had to keep an eye on,” said Martin Brand, the DEC’s deputy commissioner for remediation and materials management. “We went out and started noticing some concerns in security, storage and safe handling of the materials there.”

Brand said that led DEC officials to step up its inspections at the plant. He estimates state inspectors visited the company “a dozen times” in 2016 before the agency issued its regulatory Summary Abatement Order in November.

The order required Morgan “to immediately cease purchasing, receiving or acquiring chemical materials” and provided the agency “full access and control over the site.”

“The summary abatement is a somewhat unusual step,” Brand said. “We were not getting a lot of cooperation, frankly.”

Because of the enormity of the site, the problems there and the costs involved in re-rendering it safe, Brand said the DEC summoned the federal government’s help and the EPA became involved.

The EPA is familiar with Morgan Materials.

The federal agency directed a cleanup in the late 1990s at Morgan Materials’ then 373 Hertel Ave. facility near Niagara Street after the company was found to be haphazardly stockpiling thousands of drums of hazardous chemicals.

That discovery was first made by a Buffalo firefighter who was battling a nearby warehouse blaze. Drums of chemicals at Morgan Materials caught his eye during the firefighting effort, resulting in a referral to environmental authorities.

The EPA supervised a $6 million emergency project to dispose of 21,000 drums of chemicals over a more than one-year period between late 1997 and early 1999.

At the time, EPA officials called it the agency’s “biggest ever in New York.”

“The situation in the building when we arrived could be best described in one word: ‘gridlock,’ ” then-EPA’s regional Superfund director Richard Caspe said at the time. “The drums were crammed into every available space, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall.”

A look at the EPA’s photographs from Morgan’s current site at Vulcan Street reveals many of those same problems.

“They’re just scattered all over the place,” Basile said.

Morgan’s site is near the Charter School for Applied Technologies at Kenmore Avenue and Vulcan Street and the low-income residential community of St. Mark’s Manor on Albemarle Street.

Officials said what happened on Vulcan Street was limited to “a potential” for harm.

Brand said there were no releases into the environment from the site via air, ground or water.

The situation was caught before serious damage could be done, Brand said.

“If something was to tip over or catch on fire, it could be of sufficient danger to the surrounding community,” Brand said.

It was unclear how Morgan was allowed to move its base of operations from Buffalo to Tonawanda and continue its alleged shoddy storage of hazardous chemicals, or whether the local town government had jurisdiction to regularly inspect Morgan’s warehouses.

“My understanding is the town did not have to do any annual inspections,” said Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger, who took office earlier this year.

“The only time the town had to be out there was to install water lines.”

The state attorney general’s office is investigating whether charges could be filed in the case. That had yet to be determined.

Brand said the DEC will investigate ways to make sure Morgan doesn’t get a third chance.

“We’ll be exploring all options,” Brand said.

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