Above: A building destroyed in a massive Aug. 22 fire north of downtown Jackson appears on Thursday.
*This story has been updated to indicate that a leaking fuel storage tank was removed from the property in 1992.
By Julie Riddle
JACKSON – The property where fire destroyed a century-old industrial building in Jackson last week had been flagged at least twice as containing hazardous chemicals, records show.
Firefighters from numerous agencies battled a blaze that broke out around noon on Aug. 22 at a vacant, 200,000-square-foot building at 140 and 150 W. North St., north of downtown Jackson. Four firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration but no other injuries were reported.
Gasoline that seeped from a since-removed underground storage tank, known by the state for decades, and potentially hazardous vapors discovered at the site last year don’t appear to pose a current danger to residents, according to state and federal environmental experts.
But officials say they can’t yet say for sure whether those chemicals could create a long-term health hazard to homes surrounding the burned property.
Less than a week before the fire, the property sold at auction for $79,000, but the sale did not fully go through before the building burned, according to an online auction site.
Local and federal officials are investigating for any suspicious cause for the fire, while state investigators will try to learn where and how the fire started.
Meanwhile, residents should stay clear of the site, said Jason Cashmere, on-scene coordinator for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assigned to the Jackson fire.
Until the building is safe to enter, the EPA can’t confirm whether dangerous chemicals with unknown extent exist at the fire site, Cashmere said.
“We don’t know if there is or isn’t, at this point,” he said. “That’ll need to be looked into.” (More below)
Below: Video provided by Jackson resident Rhonda Calvert shows smoke emerging from a building on W. North Street in Jackson shortly after a fire started at the site last week.
The North Street site is one of 860 Jackson County sites with either known or possible risk from contaminants reported to the state, according to Martha Thompson, senior environmental quality analyst with the Jackson office of Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division.
In 1992, when the property was under lease by Airmaster Fan Co., a gasoline leak was detected from an underground tank when it was being removed. That issue was resolved to EGLE’s satisfaction in the early 2000s, including a provision that the property could not be welled for drinking water, Thompson confirmed.
Last year, a developer interested in purchasing the property conducted a routine environmental test that revealed the presence of chlorinated solvents under the cement-slab floor of the building.
An air quality monitor, positioned in a residential neighborhood north of where a fire destroyed an industrial building on W. North Street in Jackson last week, monitors for contaminants, as seen on Thursday.
Common in industrial applications, such chemicals could release dangerous fumes similar to those from paint thinner, Thompson explained.
EGLE did not have proof of such fumes inside the building, but state rules required the owner, Laurice LaZebnik, to either test for their presence and provide appropriate remediation ― probably to the tune of $300,000-plus ― or remove the possibility someone could breathe those potential fumes.
Complying with state requirements, LaZebnik chose the latter and late last year informed business tenants renting space in the building that they would have to relocate. As far as EGLE knows, all tenants moved out by this spring, Thompson said.
With limited commercial and industrial space available in the city, some of her tenants might have had to close their businesses because of the forced removal from the building, LaZebnik noted in her communications with EGLE.
LaZebnik declined to comment for this story, citing a busy schedule while coordinating with EPA, EGLE, and contractors cleaning the fire area.
In July, EGLE informed the Florida-based CEO of Sparton Corp. ― which formerly owned the property, originally under the name Sparks-Withington Co. ― that it considers his company liable for the contaminants found there and expects him to pay for a cleanup. Since then, the CEO asked for an extension on the 45 days EGLE gave him to respond, Thompson said.
According to online EGLE records, LaZebnik had been trying to sell the building for several years before the solvents were reported last year. An online auction site hosted an auction for the property a week before the fire, with the final and winning bid posted on Aug. 16.
According to the auction site, the buyer had to pay 10% of the bid immediately after the auction closed, but had until mid-September to finalize the sale.
A representative of the auction site did not respond to a request for confirmation of details of the sale.
City and county officials declined to receive the property as a gift, LaZebnik told EGLE.
HAZARDS FOUND, NOT FOUND
Responders’ focus after the fire was to address immediate concerns. Other potential concerns – like chlorinated solvents EGLE believes present in groundwater on the site – will come under closer scrutiny later, Thompson said. (More below)
EPA and EGLE officials collected fire debris samples from neighborhoods to the west of the fire, including from land surrounding Grand River, the Jackson High School football field, and a Mexican restaurant. Of 23 debris samples collected, 18 tested negative for asbestos, a chemical with known links to cancer, according to online EPA reports.
Only burned cement board found on North Street near the fire showed the presence of asbestos. The city closed that section of road to traffic, although the EPA report noted people trespassing onto the closed road.
Air quality monitors erected by both EPA and the Jackson Fire Department have not indicated any unsafe chemical levels, according to official reports.
In messages distributed via social media and an automated broadcast system, the city asked residents to avoid fire debris until it could be tested. As a precaution, Jackson Public Schools canceled the first day of school on Wednesday until officials could declare an all-clear for debris found on school district property. (More below)
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Although the Jackson County Emergency Manager called for EPA assistance related to known contamination immediately after the fire, according to EPA reports, Jackson Public Information Officer Aaron Dimick was not told about the building’s previous environmental citations while preparing news releases, he said.
City messaging, which updated residents on the EPA findings as they were released, focused on what residents needed to know in the moment to take action to keep themselves safe, Dimick said.
INVESTIGATIONS AND ATF AGENTS
Rhonda Calvert, who lives a few houses north of the burned building, was shocked by the speed with which the fire spread.
The building also caught fire about a decade ago, and police occasionally chase young trespassers from the property, while windows have gradually succumbed to vandalism over the years, Calvert said. See video she took of the blaze below.
“It’s just a hazard all the way around,” she said, standing on her front porch on Thursday.
As they watched the fire, she and her husband, Fred, worried about the numerous people she believes sometimes lived in the building.
Officials did not speak to residents near the fire about potential hazards from debris or smoke, the couple said.
The Calverts and other nearby residents did receive visits from U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents asking if anyone had seen anything suspicious or could share video from security cameras.
Such investigations are standard protocol after large fires and don’t necessarily indicate suspicion of criminal activity, said Tim Gonzales, deputy fire chief with the Jackson Fire Department.
A Michigan State Police fire investigation team will try to find the cause and origin of the fire while the Jackson Police Department looks into any potential criminal behavior, Gonzales said.
Officials did not see anyone fleeing during the fire and have seen no signs anyone was in the building at the time of the fire, Gonzales said.
State and federal officials will work with LaZebnik to make sure cleanup from the fire includes proper environmental precautions, said Cashmere, of the EPA.
The second federal official on scene at the February train derailment that released toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, Cashmere encouraged Jackson residents to stay away from the remains of the fire, especially as officials haven’t yet determined whether the building and grounds might contain hazardous materials or fumes.
On Friday, workers removed debris that had fallen onto North Street and that had tested positive for asbestos. The EPA will ask LaZebnik to lock and restore fencing around the property, Cashmere said.