Canajoharie - More than three years after selling its former Canajoharie plant to a shady developer who stripped the facility and stiffed the county for $2 million in property taxes, baby food maker Beech-Nut is being told by the federal government to clean up toxic asbestos from the derelict eyesore.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed an order against Beech-Nut, outlining the dangers of asbestos at the plant and in the piles of demolition debris that have been exposed for the last two years.
On Tuesday, EPA also started emergency work to seal debris piles and building walls to reduce the threat of airborne asbestos — a known human carcinogen — to people in the small village while plans are made to safely dispose of the debris. That work could cost $3 million or more.
In its order, EPA also claims that Beech-Nut knew of the asbestos danger in 2012 before selling the property for $200,000 to Ohio-based developer Todd Clifford in 2013. The EPA cleanup order also names B & B Recycling LLC, of Broken Arrow, Okla., which Clifford hired to take down the buildings.
Promising to redevelop the 27-acre former plant, Clifford instead stripped it of all valuable scrap metal, piled up debris on the property and then walked away, claiming in December 2014 to have sold the property to one of his business associates, Jeffrey Wendel.
Neither Clifford nor Wendel have paid local property taxes going back to 2013. Montgomery County is holding an unpaid bill of more than $1.7 million, as it continues to debate whether to foreclose and take ownership of the decaying environmental headache.
Beech-Nut spokeswoman Kirsten Whippel said the company is reviewing the federal order and "will determine the appropriate course of action, if any is required."
Company CEO and President Jeff Boutelle, who was in charge when the company sold the site to Clifford, recently stepped down.
His replacement, Mark S. Rodriguez, the former head of Hickory Farms, started last week.
Beech-Nut is a subsidiary of Hero AG, of Lenzburg, Switzerland, a global conglomerate in infant food and consumer goods.
EPA officials notified Beech-Nut on Nov. 15 that the company is responsible for the environmental cleanup of its former property, according to the 25-page order filed April 13. EPA asked the company to enter into negotiations over the issue, which Beech-Nut declined to do, according to the order.
EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez declined comment when asked how the agency decided that Beech-Nut remained liable for its former property.
Beech-Nut faces a Friday deadline to tell EPA whether it will comply with the order.
On Wednesday, workers were spraying tainted debris piles with a chemical liquid that dries into a hardened shell meant to trap asbestos from being blown into the air, said Keith Glenn, an EPA on-site coordinator. He said the shell lasts about six months.
The piles should be sealed within a week, with the building walls expected to take another week, Glenn said. The EPA has not conducted tests for asbestos potentially in the air near and around the plant, but Glenn said the sealing operation would prevent such an "airborne hazard."
In 2013, according to the EPA order, Beech-Nut initially wanted $1 million for the former century-old plant, which had been shuttered since 2010 after the company moved to a new facility in Florida, Montgomery County.
The company ultimately dropped the price on its old plant by 80 percent because of asbestos removal issues.
Canajoharie Mayor Francis Avery said the village had expressed "grave concerns over airborne asbestos" possibly reaching the nearby Mohawk River, which provides drinking water for municipalities downstream.
"We are grateful for any measures to help remediate this problem," Avery said. The village also faces unpaid taxes from the Beech-Nut property, he said. The county stopped reimbursing the village for unpaid taxes, which now total $150,000 during the last two years, the mayor said. That represents 10 percent of annual revenue for the village.
Avery said he is very frustrated with the plant, where damaged roof drains are leaking water into the building, which is being overtaken by mold. "I think it would be easier to demolish the Great Pyramid," he said.
Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort's office declined comment on Wednesday.
Under the administration of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the state provided up to $106.5 million in taxpayer-funded incentives for Beech-Nut to move to its new $124 million facility in 2010.
And this year, the state Empire State Development department provided the county with a $500,000 grant to help support demolition costs at the former Beech-Nut plant.
Last summer, ESD President and CEO Howard Zemsky toured the facility, saying his agency was examining "potential environmental liability and chain of title" for the Canajoharie site.
On Wednesday, the ESD press office could not update the status of any such examination. "We are hopeful the county will ultimately take the title to the site, under an arrangement that would not hold them accountable for cleanup or environmental issues," ESD spokesman Jason Conwall said.