Significant fire code violations have been found at the site of a deadly April industrial accident, and questions are mounting about why city regulators have not shut down the plant.
Lawrence City Hall officials confirmed that the production facility of MagnaGro International is in violation of nearly a dozen fire codes, including storing about eight times the amount of allowed flammable liquids, operating without adequate ventilation and storing hazardous materials with no fire sprinklers.
“My level of concern is definitely there,” said Rich Barr, the city’s fire marshal.
But it is still uncertain what actions the city will take. After being questioned by the Journal-World in June, city leaders confirmed that the fertilizer production facility, 600 E. 22nd St., has been out of compliance since 2007 with a code that requires city water and sewer service. City officials allowed the company to continue operating with the hope that it would take steps to come into compliance.
That did not happen. In April, two MagnaGro employees — Brandon Price and Roy Hillebert — were killed when they were overcome by a material being mixed at the site. The lack of city water and sewer service hasn’t been cited as a factor in the accident, but the fatalities caused questions about why the business was allowed to operate out of compliance for so long.
Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard said MagnaGro officials now have been given until July 21 to fix the water and sewer issues, or else the city will declare the structure unfit for human occupancy.
But that deadline is not an absolute one. Stoddard said the business could be allowed to continue occupying the building past July 21 if there are signs that the company has begun to work toward compliance.
City Manager David Corliss said the multi-year issue may cause the city to re-evaluate how long it gives businesses to come into compliance with codes.
“I am concerned that in some cases we seem to be giving property owners a lot of time to come into compliance,” Corliss said. “That has been our practice, but I’m not sure it is getting the best results for the community.”
The city’s fire code also would allow for operations to be halted at the facility, but Barr said he will have to receive further advice from the city’s legal department on how to proceed if compliance doesn’t happen soon.
“At some point you have to be the bad guy and pull the trigger,” Barr said. “We’re moving ahead with it. I hope they comply, but it is a fairly extensive laundry list that is going to cost them some money.”
The violations include some items such as not having fire exits properly marked or lighted. But some issues are of larger concern.
A June inspection found that 239 gallons of flammable liquids were in a storage area when the code allowed for only 30 gallons.
Storage of other types of chemicals also was out of compliance. There were 3,705 pounds of oxidizers compared with a maximum allowed level of 250 pounds; 16,150 gallons of corrosives compared with a 500 gallon maximum; and 120 gallons of combustible liquids compared with 55 gallons.
The building also was found have inadequate ventilation. Barr said he did not believe the ventilation issue was a factor in the death of the two workers. The two employees were inside a mixing tank, and Barr said the ventilation system likely would not have changed the environment inside the tank. But he said the ventilation system is important for overall worker safety.
The facility also has no fire sprinkler system. Barr said he is uncertain why that code violation was not discovered earlier. He said the city’s permit system does have a flaw in that new companies can move into facilities without triggering a review process if they are similar in uses.
Barr said the property also hasn’t been regularly inspected by the fire department. The department tries to inspect industrial sites on a yearly basis, but Barr said the manager of the property had denied him access on several occasions.
Barr said in 2008 he had started the process to receive a warrant to enter the property, but stopped it after the owner allowed another fire inspector to enter the facility for a more limited inspection. Barr was uncertain the last time a full inspection had been conducted prior to June.
City prepared for action
Ray Sawyer, manager for MagnaGro, declined to comment for this article.
The company has a checkered past. City officials disconnected water and sewer service from the building in 2007 as federal agents descended upon the facility as part of an investigation into MagnaGro dumping improper waste into the sewer system. In 2009, the company was convicted of that activity and fined $240,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In addition to the EPA violations, the facility has been the site of four chemical spills in the past six years.
Corliss said he understands concerns that the city has given this business too much time, and that the city isn’t equally enforcing codes across the city.
“I think those are fair comments,” Corliss said. “We need to respond. We need to look at our practices.”
Corliss said the city will be prepared to take action following the July 21 deadline.
“We’ll know more next week,” Corliss said. “We’ll be able to see whether they are moving toward compliance or whether this is just more talk.”