Court action: Pfeifer brothers challenge hazmat emergency clean-up

October 2009 Posted in News

By Brenna Wiegand

Was the city of Silverton too hasty in its handling of the stockpile of chemicals found on a property in town? Or did the chemicals themselves and the manner in which they were stored pose significant risk to surrounding properties – especially Silverton High School, a block away – to warrant the immediate closure and clean-up of the site?

Brothers Gene and Ron Pfeifer contend the former is true and have made their objections and perceived losses the basis of a lawsuit against the city of Silverton and several others.

The complaint, received at Marion County Circuit Court Sept. 4, comes exactly two years after the incident that shocked the city, rocked the lives of the Pfeifers and affected at least two nearby business owners.

The property at the corner of Water and C streets is known as the former site of Square Deal Lumber, established in the early 1950s by John Pfeifer, father of Ron and Gene. Upon its foreclosure in 2000, the 3-acre property with 54,000 square feet of buildings was acquired for $700,000 by Stumptown Properties, formed by US National Bank and including members who had made loans to Gene Pfeifer while he operated as Design-Build Construction.

At the time, Square Deal Lumber Yard was still in operation on the premises and Gene Pfeifer, now a tenant, undertook a new start as Innovative Design & Construction. Ron was able to continue his activities as a geologist and metallurgist. For more than 30 years, he has worked all over the country and beyond from the Silverton base.

Square Deal closed in 2002 and remained vacant. Investors were encouraged in 2007 when Sergi Cheremnov applied to open a furniture store in the building. But during the city inspection, large pallets containing containers of paint were observed being moved from the area. Further investigation uncovered many leftovers from previous construction jobs, including asbestos tiles. From there, Ron’s large array of chemistry – more than 300 bottles’ worth – and his disorderly lab above Gene’s office were found.

This set off investigations by the state fire marshal, the Department of Environmental Quality and Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Division; the latter two agencies later issued citations.

Gene said that initially State Fire Marshall Paul Nees and DEQ Hazmat Specialist Susan Shewczyk indicated the Pfeifers could take a more gradual approach to the removal and/or proper storage and labeling of the chemicals and in bringing Ron’s lab up to specifications. However, the city chose to exert its authority, ordering an immediate, surprise evacuation of both people and all questionable substances.

This necessitated a costly professional clean-up; interruption in business for the Pfeifers; a half-day shut-down of nearby Silverton Foundry; and delay of business and confusion for incoming tenant Cheremnov.

Chemicals and paints in rusty containers eventually led to the city\'s discovery of this lab in disarray on the old Square Deal property.The lawsuit, seeking a minimum of $1.5 million in damages, is against the city of Silverton, city staff and its attorney; Silverton Fire District; Stumptown Properties; a hospital representative acting as the Silverton Preparedness Coordinator; and a former employee. The claims include negligence, trespass, abuse of process, wrongful civil proceedings, defamation, infliction of emotional distress, elder abuse, conversion (wrongful retention of property taken); and interference with business relations. Repeated in the written complaint is the contention that the actions by these individuals interfered with Gene and Ron’s “peaceful use and enjoyment of the premises.”

The suit also lists Gene and his father’s longtime community involvement, which, in Gene’s case, is ongoing.

“I was in front of the City Council recently expressing my concern about the (instability of) the Silverton dam,” he said.

The proposed defendants had not yet been served with the complaint as of Sept. 22, and all parties involved are reluctant to comment on the case now that it may be going to trial. The process of determining this usually takes about a year, Pfeifer’s attorney Terrence Kay said.

David Leonard, attorney representative for Stumptown Properties, stated (in 2007) that the environmental site assessment conducted at the time of foreclosure identified the presence of numerous chemicals considered hazardous substances, some unlabeled, on the property. However, all were consistent with the property’s use as a lumber yard and construction company. Most were common products such as paint.

Apparently, the chemistry and other items that would wreak havoc two years later were missed during this inspection.

However, along with the Pfeifers, Leonard said Stumptown worked to fully cooperate with the city and state regulators who descended on the place in September 2007.

In the aftermath, Ron expressed regret at having “let go” of his chemical inventory, used for such activities as testing for and extracting precious and other metals from ore.

“I wish I could have kept more,” he said then. “The thing is, when you need it, you need it, and it’s kind of tough to just go out and buy everything – it can get expensive.”

At the same time, Gene expressed resentment toward the city for “traumatizing” them, saying “they took an active business and tore it apart. … We’re becoming an unfriendly city and I’m troubled about it because I’ve lived here all my life.”

The city stated at that time it was not willing to wait, especially given the presence of chemicals such as cyanide and ethylene oxide and the property’s proximity to local schools. Shewczyk of DEQ applauded the city’s decision.

“The city’s response to me was wonderful,” she said then. “It would have taken a lot more for DEQ to close it down … I admire the way the city worked together with me.”

Although notice terminating Innovative Design’s tenancy was in effect at the time the chemicals were discovered, Stumptown put it aside due to the “trauma and confusion” of the event as well as the manner in which the Pfeifers cooperated with the swift clean-up. The landlord recently repainted the Innovative Design building.

Meanwhile, it has been unable to sell the property or gain additional tenants for the site.

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