In April, two workers died in an industrial accident at MagnaGro International’s Lawrence production facility.
Come to find out, the city of Lawrence since 2007 has had legal options to punish and fine the oft-troubled facility for code violations, but chose not to do so.
That soon may change. After being questioned by the Journal-World about the matter, city leaders said Wednesday that they are preparing a case to prosecute the business for operating without city water or sewer service.
But now questions are emerging about whether the city should have taken action sooner.
“It probably has been allowed to go on too long,” said Mayor Mike Amyx. “It appears to me that we haven’t been getting any type of positive response.”
Trying to work it out
MagnaGro’s facility, 600 E. 22nd St., has been disconnected from city water and sewer service since 2007. City officials disconnected the building 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.
Toni Wheeler, the city’s director of legal services, confirmed that since 2007 the building has been out of compliance with the city’s property maintenance code, which requires working plumbing systems.
On Wednesday, a member of the city manager’s office acknowledged that despite the code violations the city had not taken the legal actions necessary to start assessing daily fines to the company or possibly require it to stop occupying the building until it came into compliance.
“Our goal is always to obtain compliance instead of pursuing options in the court system,” said Diane Stoddard, assistant city manager.
Stoddard said city officials did have several discussions with MagnaGro manager Raymond Sawyer, and were “hopeful” the property would be brought into compliance. The city contends a special monitoring device must installed in the facility before water and sewer service can be restored.
But when reached Wednesday by the Journal-World, Sawyer did not convey much hope. Sawyer called the city’s decision to disconnect his business a “knee-jerk reaction,” and said the city had damaged his property in the process.
“They are never going to turn it back on, so it doesn’t matter,” Sawyer said before abruptly hanging up.
Stoddard said the city now is preparing to take the company to Municipal Court to enforce the city code provisions.
“We would agree that in this case we have not been able to obtain compliance in the time frame that we would like,” Stoddard said.
The city’s code does not give any guidance on how long the city should work with a company or individual to gain compliance. But Stoddard acknowledged that staff members do not have the legal authority to simply allow a portion of the code to go unmet.
She said staff members were willing to give the MagnaGro case some time because it was determined that the property did have access to a temporary water supply through something similar to a bottled water service and that the facility was being served by a portable toilet.
“By not having the water and sewer service did not create an immediate health and safety concern that would cause us immediate alarm,” Stoddard said.
But Stoddard conceded the city was not doing regular inspections of the property to determine whether water was available on the site consistently during the nearly three-year period or whether the portable toilet was being kept up to proper standards.
The property has a checkered past. In addition to the EPA violations — which involved transferring waste from a holding basin to a restroom toilet — the facility has been the site of four chemical spills in the past six years.
Then in April, MagnaGro was the site of a double fatality industrial accident. Brandon Price, 25, and Roy Hillebert, 51, both were killed when they were overcome by a material being mixed at the site.
There is no evidence that the lack of city water or sewer service played a role in the incident.
“Certainly our staff was very concerned about what had occurred,” Stoddard said. “It certainly was a very sad situation. It is important to realize that as we were dealing with the issues with the water and sewer services, those were not immediate health and safety concerns. I don’t believe there is a direct tie between that incident and the industrial accident that happened.”
But Mayor Amyx said he knows there are questions about whether the company even would have been operating at the time of the accident had the city insisted the company comply with city code. He said he can understand why staff continued to try to work with the company.
“I’m going to be supportive of staff at this point,” Amyx said. “There probably always will be a question of how much time is too much time. But we try to work with businesses all the time to bring them into compliance on a lot of issues.”