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EPA making progress cleaning up chemicals stockpiled at Tonawanda warehouse

Seven months ago, state and federal authorities seized control of a Town of Tonawanda chemical supplier allegedly stockpiling thousands of tons of chemicals.

Tuesday, the scene was safe enough for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to offer reporters a safety-vest and hard-hat behind-the-scenes peek of the cleanup.

A light epoxy or solvent smell permeated the inside of a main warehouse at Morgan Materials' 380 Vulcan St. site.

Drums, totes and sacks of chemicals fill shelves – but not like they once did, when they were stacked on top of each other and crowded aisles and made any movement difficult.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said Peter Lisichenko, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator at Morgan Materials.

Federal officials said constant air monitoring shows the environment is safe enough to navigate inside without a respirator.

Still, the ubiquitous dryness can leave a visitor's tongue feeling chalky with hints of a plastic taste.

[Gallery: Inside look at Morgan Materials hazardous waste site]

EPA officials said Morgan Materials did not become a major story on the national news because a disaster never struck.

Authorities said “catastrophic” devastation to homes, schools and businesses in the neighborhood could have happened if an accident or fire hit the sprawling 2.1-acre site.

“If you wanted to make a jump from Lackawanna to here, this would have been much worse.” Lisichenko said, referring to the massive fire that raged for days at the former Bethlehem Steel site last November.

Haphazardly stockpiled flammables, corrosives and oxidizing chemicals prompted the state Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct an emergency seizure of the property last November and turn it over to the EPA for 24-hour security and rapid cleanup.

“You had flammables sitting on top of corrosives sitting on top of oxidizers,” Lisichenko said.

Some of the most hazardous chemicals state and federal officials encountered when they arrived late last year are now gone:

  • Chemical manufacturers who sold to Morgan voluntarily picked up 6 million pounds of chemicals.
  • Corrosive and flammable liquids which made up some of the more than 5,500 drums and small containers found were removed.
  • More than 2,800 tons of chemicals were disposed of off-site.
  • Chemicals stored outside one of the several cavernous steel-framed buildings were moved indoors.

Tonawanda business accused of stashing hazardous chemicals

An estimated 7 million pounds of hazardous materials remain – including sacks of the compound Bisphenol A, titanium dioxide pigment, polyvinyl alcohol, 30- and 40-gallon drums and packages of unknown chemicals and other chemicals or “Morgan mixtures.”

They are now segregated to eliminate the potential for interactions.

Meanwhile, activity at the site is constant.

As chemists work under a hood in a small outdoor vinyl tent to identify other unknown chemicals or mixtures discovered with or without labels, workers from Guardian Environmental Services, Inc. use mechanical jacks to gingerly move around pallets of tanks containing flammable liquids in a nearby wing indoors.

At another spot on the site, Tyvex-suited workers sift through caches of unidentified chemical drums.

“You have to separate everything,” Lisichenko said. “It’s a very slow process.”

When things need to be moved around by high-lift, only electric units are used to reduce risks for fire.

Another area is cordoned off with yellow caution tape because of a gaping hole in the roof. Authorities need to make sure any chemicals that could react with water are kept at a safe distance.

The EPA said Morgan Materials, and its owner Donald Sadkin, had been trading in off-specification chemicals and unsafely storing them for nearly 20 years.

Some of the drums were labeled in foreign languages including Chinese, Japanese, possibly Scandinavian, and others.

Officials said when chemical companies created a product that didn’t meet proper specifications, it sold them to Morgan Materials as seconds.

And they apparently came in at a rate faster than Morgan could handle, resell – or organize – them.

Officials said the company used the chemicals to mix and design its own formulas for resale that included abrasives, dyes, raw materials for latex paints, pigments and ammonium chloride.

“When he couldn’t sell it, he kept bringing it in,” said Gez Bushra, another on-scene coordinator for the cleanup. “That’s how he kept accumulating it.”

Added Bushra: “It’s a chemical hoarding.”

The EPA said Sadkin is cooperating and regularly on-site.

No formal charges are pending against Sadkin or the company.

But an investigation remains underway by the DEC.

Sadkin, when reached Tuesday afternoon at his Williamsville home, said he’s being targeted unfairly.

“This is such a one-sided thing,” Sadkin said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Sadkin said he’s been in the chemical business for 53 years and was possibly operating one of the largest off-specification businesses in the world.

When authorities shut down the business, it meant 41 people were laid off, “many of them parolees who will never get a job again,”  Sadkin said.

“It’s a case of government out of control,” Sadkin said.

It’s not the first time Morgan Materials was the subject of EPA action.

In the late 1990s, the federal agency targeted the businesses facility at 373 Hertel Ave. near Niagara Street for similar reasons.

That involved removing and disposing of about 21,000 drums of chemicals in what was characterized as the biggest cleanup of its kind in the EPA’s New York and Jersey region.

The EPA expects all of the hazardous chemicals to be identified and removed from the Vulcan Street site by August or September.

Hazardous chemicals will either be incinerated or taken to a designated hazardous waste landfill in Michigan or farther west.

Officials said it will take another eight months or so to get the rest of the materials that aren’t as dangerous carted away into area landfills.

Authorities don’t see things nearly the way Sadkin does.

They believe their actions are warranted to protect neighborhood residents, students at the nearby Charter School for Applied Technologies and General Motors employees at the company’s adjacent Powertrain plant.

“A catastrophic event would have resulted,” Lisichenko said. “This could have been a very bad situation.”

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