LAWRENCE — The owner of the former Merrimac Paper Co. mill has been removing machinery, equipment and metals from the complex since buying it for $1 in 2010, disregarding the liens the city has on the property and several orders from the state to stop, state Attorney General Martha Coakley alleges in a request for a court order blocking the salvage operation.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Bonnie MacLeod last week ordered mill owner David Padellaro to stop salvaging pipes, turbines, transformers, metals, pumps and other valuables from the South Canal Street complex until she can hear Coakley’s complaint that the work is releasing cancer-causing asbestos into the air.
MacLeod also blocked Padellaro from demolishing a cluster of three or four mill buildings destroyed in a fire last month until she can hear Coakley’s argument that the demolition, like the salvage operation, must be done according to regulations that would contain the asbestos and other toxins at the 134-year-old mill.
“Mr. Padellaro has willfully ignored MassDEP’s enforcement actions and exposed workers and potentially others to a public safety hazard and an unnecessary environmental risk,” Kenneth Kimmell, the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said in a statement he issued with Coakley after Judge MacLeod granted their request for a temporary restraining order stopping the salvage operation. “With this action, we are hopeful that this site, located within an environmental justice community, will finally be safely cleaned up.”
Padellaro’s lawyer, Sal Tabit, said Padellaro is “working right along with the city and DEP” to remediate the property. He said Coakley’s claims are “simply allegations, like any complaint.”
MacLeod stopped work at the former mill until Feb. 24, when she will hear Coakley’s request for an injunction that would further delay the work until a trial can be held on her allegations that Padellaro’s salvaging operation has “put workers and the public at risk” and violated environmental laws, including the state Clean Air Act.
Coakley is seeking an order directing Padellaro to obtain the permits the DEP requires for demolishing contaminated buildings. She also is asking the judge to freeze all of his assets, including the mill and its equipment, any other real estate he may own, “all household and office furnishings” and his bank accounts.
Freezing Padellaro’s assets could provide a source of money to pay the $86,000 the DEP says it has spent to monitor the mill and to hire the contractors who entered the property to inventory the environmental contaminants in August 2012.
Padellaro also owes $26,000 in DEP fines.
The contractor who inspected the site in 2012, Shaw Environmental Inc. of Louisiana firm, found high levels of asbestos in 13 of the mill’s 28 buildings, and said it was unable to fully inspect nine of the buildings because they were near collapse. Inspectors for Shaw also inventoried the equipment that disappeared during what it said was Padellaro’s “extensive metal salvaging operation,” which occurred despite several DEP directives to stop out of concern it was spreading asbestos and structurally damaging the buildings.
Coakley said in her complaint that Padellaro continued the salvaging operation as recently as Feb. 3.
The $86,000 the DEP is attempting to recover would be a fraction of the cost of demolishing the three or four buildings destroyed in a fire Jan. 13. City Building Commissioner Peter Blanchette said the bill for that clean-up could reach $500,000. Much more would be needed to safely remove asbestos from about a dozen other contaminated buildings on the four-acre complex.
State arson investigators have not determined the cause of last month’s fire. Blanchette ordered the charred building demolished the day after the investigators left, but the order Judge MacLeod’s issued Thursday will delay that.
Obtaining the court order is the most aggressive step the state has taken against Padellaro since he bought the mill four years ago in what local officials then described as a tax dodge for its previous owner, Andover developer Stephen Stapinski.
Stapinski bought it at a bankruptcy auction in 2005 and sold it to Padellaro after he was unable to get city approvals for a residential and commercial complex. The $3 million in back property taxes, water bills and interest Stapinski owed when he sold the property now surpasses $5 million. The city placed a lien on the property in an effort to collect the bills, but has not seized the property because of the environmental and other liabilities it poses. Besides the buildings and land, the liens attach the equipment inside, City Attorney Charles Boddy said.
The company Padellaro formed to buy the property was dissolved by the Secretary of State last year after it failed to file annual reports.
Coakley’s 35-page complaint provides a detailed account of Padellaro’s alleged defiance, including what she said was his years’ long refusal to comply with DEP directives and regulations or to correct the violations that city and state inspectors regularly found.
“During most, if not all, of those inspections, MassDEP staff explained to Padellaro that his salvage, demolition and solid waste storage activities at the site are being conducted in violation of the Clean Air Act (and other environmental regulations) and that he is putting his workers at risk of dangerous asbestos exposure and potential building collapse,” Coakley’s complaint says, referring to 11 inspections by the DEP over the last four years.