In hindsight, it seems city officials may not have been strict enough with a local company that was operating without the water and sewer systems required in the city code.
That doesn’t mean the city is responsible for the fatal accident that occurred at MagnaGro in April, but it is a reminder of the role city codes, and their enforcement, play in ensuring safe, sanitary conditions in Lawrence structures.
The city disconnected water and sewer service at MagnaGro’s facility at 600 E. 22nd St. in 2007 when the company was being investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency for dumping improper waste into the sewer. It was a reasonable action, especially in light of the subsequent $240,000 EPA fine levied against MagnaGro.
Since that time, city officials had been trying to get MagnaGro back in compliance with city codes concerning sewer and water service. Managers of the company apparently weren’t interested in working with the city and were getting by with a portable toilet and some kind of bottled water service at the site.
City officials were aware of the situation but it wasn’t a high priority because it didn’t pose a health hazard. MagnaGro didn’t attract a lot of attention until April when two workers died after being overcome by fumes in a tank at the plant.
There’s no indication that the lack of water and sewer service to MagnaGro had anything to do with the accident. Nonetheless, it’s only human nature to look back at the situation and wonder whether more vigorous enforcement of the city codes at MagnaGro might have prompted the company to either clean up its act or close down before two men died.
City officials walk a fine line with this type of enforcement. With the ongoing complaint that Lawrence is “unfriendly” to business ringing in their ears, along with the expense of pursuing legal action, it’s understandable that city officials would lean to trying to get voluntary compliance to city codes.
Three years seems like a long time to try to achieve that compliance, especially when there was no positive movement on the part of the company, but city codes offer no guidance on how long the city should work with a company before heading to court and assessing fines. City commissioners should consider adding some guidelines, if not firm deadlines, to the codes to facilitate enforcement.
When companies are willing to openly flout city codes, it may indicate they also are willing to operate outside the law in other ways. Again, the city isn’t to blame for the fatalities that occurred at MagnaGro, but stricter city code enforcement might be a first line of defense to prevent similar tragedies in the future.