Lawrence police Sgt. Bill Cory said police are assisting the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in its probe into the men’s deaths at MagnaGro International, 600 E. 22nd St.
On April 1, Roy Hillebert, 51, Eudora, and Brandon Price, 25, Lawrence, died after one of them was cleaning a piece of equipment and was overcome. Chemical residue in an ambulance that had been at the MagnaGro accident contained 80 percent cane molasses, which can convert to a dangerous gas in poorly ventilated areas.
One of many probes
The probe that’s under way is just the latest of many investigations into the company’s operations. It is the first that centers on the deaths of workers, however.
On the day that Hillebert and Price died, there were still large piles of dirt on site left over from a fertilizer spill more than five months before.
Those piles were the subject of a letter that Kansas Department of Health and Environment officials had sent MagnaGro the day before the fatal accident.
It was the second letter the state agency had sent asking for proof that the stockpiles of soil — which were possibly hazardous — had been removed.
The day after the men died, officials from KDHE visited MagnaGro, investigating a complaint that chemicals were leaching from the stockpile into a neighbor’s basement. That wasn’t the case, a KDHE report noted, but the piles hadn’t been moved.
More recorded spills
The KDHE’s findings were a mere footnote in the poor environmental record the Lawrence business has acquired during the past decade. It is a record that includes a $240,000 fine from the Environmental Protection Agency for discharging the facility’s waste into the city’s sewer system through a hose inserted in a toilet.
Since the KDHE’s visit, the piles of dirt have been disposed of, MagnaGro general manager and owner Raymond Sawyer said. Sawyer disputes the agency’s claim that the dirt and material spilled are hazardous.
Sawyer said the products that spilled are organic-based nutrients that contain ingredients such as coal dust, molasses, vinegar and ferments from wheat and barley.
Cleaning up a spill of eight to 10 pounds of material costs MagnaGro about $16,000, Sawyer said. But 25 pounds of the same material can be applied over an acre of fields.
“The whole thing is ludicrous,” Sawyer said.
Since 2004, KDHE has responded to four chemical or fertilizer spills at the business:
• The most recent spill occurred on Oct. 14 when a clamp came loose on a hose that was pumping the fertilizer ReStoreXtra into a truck. About 200 gallons of the fertilizer spilled into a drainage ditch and on an old rail line where a walking trail is being built.
As part of the cleanup, HAZ-MAT Response, an Olathe-based company, vacuumed up 5,000 gallons of contaminated water and excavated at least 50 cubic yards of dirt.
A label for ReStoreXtra cautions that the product is harmful if swallowed and could cause irritation to the nose, skin or throat. It advises users to keep the product out of reach of children.
• Seven months earlier at MagnaGro, about 100 gallons of the fertilizer PhytoGro Xtra spilled out of the back of a truck after it went over a bump, according to a KDHE report. A neighboring business reported the spill.
An analysis of the fertilizer showed that it had high levels of nitrates and phosphates.
After the spill, a MagnaGro employee drove the truck inside the business and locked the doors. KDHE could not access or gather information on the truck until it asked for a search warrant to be issued, the KDHE report noted.
When asked Thursday why he wouldn’t allow KDHE officials into his business, Sawyer said he wanted to talk to his insurance company first.
• Two more spills were reported in January 2004 and January 2008.