Fire amplifies concerns over possible mercury contamination at vacant industrial building in CLE

Posted at 8:00 PM, Feb 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-19 20:00:28-05

Fluorescent Recycling Inc., a Cleveland-area recycling company, continued to defy state and local orders for years by illegally housing millions of mercury-laden fluorescent light bulbs, according to records obtained by News 5. The building where Fluorescent Recycling once operated, a massive industrial building that borders Neville and Wentworth Avenues, caught fire last week, renewing concerns about potential contamination.

A large three-alarm fire broke out at the massive facility last week, prompting Ohio EPA officials to conduct air quality tests. While the tests did not show elevated levels of mercury, environmental officials worry that trespassers might track the toxic chemical outside the building. On Monday, a private security guard was stationed outside the torched loading dock.

The fire is just the latest in a long list of environmental issues concerning the property. 

In January 2013, the Cleveland Fire Department conducted an investigation into a complaint about the property. That investigation determined the property was not up to code and there was no gas, electric or water service at the building, according to state records. A few months later, a follow-up investigation showed that nothing had changed at the property, deeming it unsafe. In December 2014, the Cleveland Board of Building Standards upheld a cease use order.

George Dietrich was told that entry into the building was only allowed for moving purposes. However, according to state records, officials discovered in February 2015 that Dietrich had made no progress on moving out. The fire department then sought a temporary restraining order.

After reaching an agreement with housing court officials, fire department investigators again paid Fluorescent Recycling Inc. a visit. In September 2015, investigators noted that Dietrich had instead begun collecting more potentially hazardous fluorescent light bulbs, a direct violation of the agreement reached in housing court.

That’s when the Ohio EPA got involved.

In January 2016, inspectors toured the expansive facility and discovered there were at least two million, and possibly three million, fluorescent light bulbs scattered around the first floor of the building, according to an EPA report. Thousands of the bulbs were in large containers. There were also a number of broken bulbs on the ground, the report stated. Inspectors also noted there were approximately 250, 55-gallon drums that were full of broken and spent fluorescent bulbs.

Each of these bulbs potentially has mercury, a potentially toxic chemical that can evaporate at room temperature. It has no odor and is very dangerous, officials said.

Fluorescent Recycling was also operating without a valid state permit. The serious violations of state law led state officials to order Dietrich to close down and remove all of the bulbs and other items from the facility. Neighbors living near the gutted building had no idea what was being stored inside.

“It pisses me off a lot,” said Willie Williams. “I have kids that are out here playing. If something happens to that building where it causes a lot of debris and dust to come over this way, my kids are going to be affected. I can’t have them playing out front anymore. It’s a rainy day now. If their ball goes over there and gets in the mud, there’s no telling what’s in that dirt, that soil. They can’t play out front anymore. They have to say in the backyard. That’s kind of wrong.”

In the months that followed the initial EPA inspection, Fluorescent Recycling shipped some of the spent bulbs to be recycled, records state. However, Dietrich did not submit a plan to properly close the facility. That prompted the state EPA to get the federal EPA involved.

"[Fluorescent Recycling] has not been timely in responding to releases and cleaning up broken lamps, and vandals continue to try to gain entry, causing potential exposure to themselves as well as potential tracking of mercury out of the building,” officials said in a letter obtained by News 5. “Furthermore, the numerous missing windows contribute to the possible release of mercury vapors to the surrounding community. Finally, in the event of a fire, additional mercury could be released to the environment through the air or water run-off from fighting the fire.”

Those concerns were realized on Tuesday. Dietrich did not want to comment; he was concerned that his statements might be misconstrued by the state EPA, whom he has an adversarial relationship with. Dietrich has appealed the state’s findings. A hearing is set for May.