By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE - Attorney General Martha Coakley is investigating a report that the former city cop who owns the Merrimac Paper mill is continuing to salvage valuables from the property despite a court order freezing his assets.
The owner, David Padellaro, could not be reached Friday.
His lawyer, Jim Bowers, said he also has been unable to reach Padellaro to discuss the allegation but said he suspected it arose out of a weekend project at the mill that complied with the court order and was approved by the state.
Bowers said Padellaro last weekend emptied a leased trailer where he stored tools, ladders and other equipment so that he could return the trailer to its owner, Aran Trading of Salisbury. He said inspectors with the state Department of Environmental Protection examined the contents of the trailer before it was emptied to ensure that they were free of asbestos, a carcinogen formerly used in building materials that is widespread on the property.
Joseph Ferson, a spokesman for the DEP, referred a question about the work to Coakley’s office.
Jillian Fennimore, a spokesperson for Coakley, said only that her office is investigating the allegation that Padellaro is continuing the salvaging operation he began after buying the mill for $1 in 2010. She referred a question about whether the DEP approved the weekend project back to the DEP.
Earlier this year, state Superior Court Judge Bonnie MacLeod ordered Padellaro to stop removing pipes, turbines, transformers, metals, pumps and other valuables from the historic 134-year-old mill complex and to stop any demolition on the three-acre site until first submitting a plan to the DEP for safely removing the asbestos and other contaminants.
MacLeod also froze all of Padellaro’s financial assets, including his bank accounts, home and the mill, to ensure he contributes whatever he has to the cleanup cost.
Coakley requested the injunction blocking demolition and sought the freeze on Padellaro’s assets after a fire on Jan. 13 destroyed the oldest of the 27 buildings on the South Canal Street property and damaged several adjoining buildings. The fire was the most recent of several at the former mill in recent years. State arson investigators visited the mill for three days after the fire but have not reported a cause.
Padellaro submitted a handful of cleanup plans over the years, including one after the January blaze that called for simply burying the asbestos on the site; the DEP rejected them all, resulting in the years of delay for major demolition work.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency stepped in on June 4, when it announced at a press conference outside the mill that it had begun the process of declaring the property a Superfund site. The declaration would allow the agency to do the cleanup itself and send Padellaro the bill.
The EPA joined the effort after a plea from Mayor Daniel Rivera, who told the agency that Padellaro had “willfully ignored” the state DEP’s directives and did not have the assets or insurance to pay for the cleanup and demolition. The agency’s speedy response to Rivera’s request contrasted with the years of inaction by former Mayor William Lantigua on the troubled property, where Padellaro posted a sign suggesting the former mayor’s administration would be a player in its redevelopment.
Padellaro bought the former mill from Andover developer Stephen Stapinski for $1 in 2010 in what former city officials described as a tax dodge for Stapinski. The property owes more than $5.4 million in property taxes and in sewer, water and fire watch fees, a debt that makes Padellaro, who assumed the overdue bills when he bought the property, the city’s biggest tax deadbeat.
Bowers, Padellaro’s lawyer, would not say what assets Padellaro may have to pay for the cleanup and the demolition expected to follow. Padellaro was fired from the Lawrence police force for misconduct in 1998.
“He’s happy (the EPA) is being of assistance,” Bowers, an assistant city attorney in Lawrence for 10 years who is now in private practice, said about his client. “He’s cooperating.”