A mill’s tale
Pillsbury descends into Superfund status
Ann Ridgeway was on her porch when the crash came.
No one had told neighbors that a massive metal building was going to fall that day in October 2014. Towering more than 10 stories, the so-called dryer building – locals say artificial sweetener was once made there – produced plenty of dust and debris in its death throe.
“It looked like something was on fire,” Ridgeway recalls. Brian Dearco was repairing his roof a couple blocks away from Ridgeway’s home, directly across the street from the mill.
“As soon as the building came down, millions of mosquitoes and gnats came out,” Dearco says. “I broke out in a rash. My wife did, too. … You could smell it in the air after that building came down. It smelled like gas, so the fire department came.”
Responding to reports of a collapsed building, fire engines swarmed. But there was nothing to worry about, an owner of the site assured firefighters – he had a permit to demolish the building, according to fire marshal Chris Richmond. And so the fire engines left, and work resumed, with crews sorting through rubble to recover scrap.
There was, in fact, plenty to worry about.
Permit applications filed with the city stated that asbestos inside the building would be cleaned up prior to demolition, but that didn’t happen. No regulator would have allowed the dryer building to be torn down absent pre-demolition cleanup of asbestos, which was used as a building material throughout the plant.
Once common as a building material, asbestos is a carcinogen that can cause chronic and irreversible lung damage. The more exposure, the greater the risk, and it can take years for symptoms to develop. The mill contained a lot of asbestos.
“You just never know,” says Kevin Turner, site cleanup coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “One asbestos fiber from 20 years ago could cause some sort of lung issue. Or you could be exposed to it for 10 years and not have any issues.”
A consultant who conducted an environmental assessment of the site in 1991, the same year that Pillsbury sold the mill to Cargill, found pipes and tanks tagged with caution labels warning that asbestos was present. Pillsbury had an ongoing asbestos abatement program based in part on a 1987 survey that included taking as many as 500 samples of material throughout the plant and testing for asbestos. Pillsbury during the late 1980s identified priorities and started cleaning up sections of the plant, according to the 1991 report by the Minnsesota-based consultant.
“The facility has implemented an asbestos awareness training program for its personnel,” the consultant wrote more than a quarter-century ago. “Asbestos removal and disposal is performed by licensed asbestos removal contractors on an as-needed basis.”
Subsequent surveys found plenty of risk. A 1996 report commissioned by Cargill, one of the planet’s largest food companies that acquired the mill in 1991, identified more than a mile of pipe insulated with potentially deadly asbestos. In 2008, a scrapper in search of electrical equipment hired a consultant who found asbestos in subterranean electrical vaults.
Soon after the dryer building came down in 2014, the city demanded that the mill owners obtain proper permits while also registering buildings on the site as vacant. “That’s kind of where things really kind of started rolling,” says Springfield fire marshal Chris Richmond.
But real heat didn’t arrive until the late summer of 2015, when state regulators got a call from a man who’d been getting paid in cash to cut asbestos insulation from pipes with a linoleum knife, then stuff the carcinogenic waste into plastic garbage bags. It’s not clear what might have prompted the apparent falling out between Don Dufer, the man with the utility knife who blew the whistle, and Joey Chernis IV, the man who hired him – Duter contacted the state shortly after he was fired, according to court documents. Regulators say a whole lot of damage was done before a court injunction stopped work in the fall of 2015.
If Springfield was Gotham and The Joker needed a hideout, he could do a lot worse than Pillsbury Mill.
Although the dryer building, a boiler room and parts of warehouses have been demolished, an estimated 850,000 square feet of space remain. Neighbors say the cops have told them that officers won’t go inside the cyclone fence that surrounds the property. Springfield police did not respond to an inquiry, but it isn’t hard to imagine why police officers wouldn’t venture inside the mill.
For one thing, it’s dark, with plenty of places for bad guys to hide. For another, large sections of floor and other structural parts of the building are missing. There is also pollution.
Left alone, asbestos isn’t necessarily dangerous stuff. Indeed, the silver coating on massive grain elevators on the mill’s east side contains asbestos. Regulators say that the coating is nothing to worry about, at least not yet. But tearing away insulation and other materials that contain asbestos can set free carcinogenic fibers that can float in the air and cause substantial health risks. And that, regulators say, is exactly what has happened inside Pillsbury Mill.
“(T)he results of the scrapping and demolition activities have left a large amount of loose and friable asbestos all through the buildings and asbestos containing rubble and debris outside of the buildings which is exposed to the elements,” Turner wrote a year ago in a memo assessing the situation.
Some of that loose asbestos was in the dryer building, according to federal prosecutors. Richmond, the fire marshal, downplays any threat to the neighborhood, although he acknowledges that witnesses saw a large cloud of dust rise when the building fell. “Some of that dust cloud presumably went throughout the neighborhood,” Richmond says. “All the testing done with the Illinois EPA and the U.S. EPA – asbestos particulate tests and air monitoring – has shown very little if any asbestos made it outside the fenced industrial property. Presumably, the lion’s share, even all of it, settled within the property.”
Court documents, however, paint a darker picture. “By improperly handling and depositing (asbestos), defendants and/or their agents have caused or allowed uncontrolled discharges of asbestos fibers into the environment, creating a substantial danger to the environment and the public health and welfare, endangering the health and well-being of defendant’s workers, nearby residents of the facility and the general public,” lawyers with the state attorney general’s office wrote in a 2015 request for an injunction to halt work. The injunction was granted.
Asbestos from the dryer building and other parts of the Pillsbury Mill likely has spread far and wide.
“All of that debris that was asbestos contaminated was taken by demolition recyclers throughout the Midwest in its contaminated form,” Richmond says.
The plant itself remains a hazard. Proper asbestos removal requires copious amounts of water, sprayed just-so while workers remove asbestos-contaminated material to prevent poisonous fibers from becoming airborne. But no water was on hand when Dufer used stripped asbestos from more than a mile of pipe.
Without water to keep it out of the air, asbestos fibers attached themselves to dust particles throughout the plant, including particles from the illegal demolition of the dryer building. “When you’ve got contaminated dust settling, it contaminates what it settles on,” Richmond explains. “It settles on horizontal surfaces, and that’s where it remains until it gets stirred up.”
So long as the mill is empty, with no dust getting kicked up, there is, at least in theory, no problem. But the plant hasn’t been empty, despite no-trespassing signs and a fence topped by razor and barbed wire in various states of repair.
“Listen,” Dearco says as he stands outside his house. Sure enough, from a football field away, the sound of metal-on-metal clanging floats up from the direction of the mill. Someone, it sounds like, is in there doing something.
Ridgeway can see the route from her porch. All they have to do, she says, is get a boost up to a concrete ledge that traverses a small building and leads to the upper portion of the cyclone fence that’s supposed to keep trespassers out. That the fence is somewhat a joke is driven home by the presence of a piece of portable scaffolding, apparently scrounged from within the mill, just inside the main gate. The scaffolding is positioned such that materials could easily be lifted over the gate and onto a vehicle parked outside, and mushed-down barbed wire atop the gate suggests that’s exactly what has happened.
Junkies and homeless adults ignoring “Danger: Asbestos” signs to steal scrap is one thing. The nightmare scenario is kids being kids.
“Everybody wants to do a little Tom Sawyering,” offers John Keller, president of the Pillsbury Mill Neighborhood Association, the only neighborhood association with a Superfund namesake.
Regulators say they’re well aware.
“Kids are kids,” Turner says. “I look at it from when I was a kid. If there was an abandoned building, boom, we were in it. That is a population that we’d be concerned with.”
“We live in a good town”
The mill wasn’t always like this.
When Keller helped launch the neighborhood association in the 1990s, the mill was still open. But just barely.
By the time Cargill purchased the mill from Pillsbury in 1991, the plant had trimmed operations, reducing employment to fewer than 350 workers. At its peak, the plant had employed 1,500 people. It was built on the eve of the Great Depression, and Pillsbury had to be persuaded of both an adequate water supply and paved streets, plus railroad access, to the site before committing to a $1.5 million investment in 1929.
“We live in a good town,” the Illinois State Journal gushed shortly before the mill opened, noting that 120 building permits had been issued in September 1929, just one month before the stock market crashed and sent the entire nation into economic catastrophe. “We know it, and large industries are realizing the fact more and more.”
Through the years, the mill manufactured flour as well as a variety of cake and baking mixes. The neighborhood smelled like Grandma’s kitchen and boasted grocery stores and butcher shops and taverns and restaurants. The mill was a beacon.
“At nighttime, it used to be lit up,” recalls Keller, who no longer lives in the neighborhood but still spends time there, picking up trash. “You come in from Riverton, you go over the overpass, the first thing you saw was the mill sticking up.”
By the late 1980s, Pillsbury had cut back operations and was looking to get out. It sold the mill to Cargill in 1991 for $19.2 million, roughly, in inflation-adjusted dollars, what the plant had cost to build when Hoover was in the White House. Cargill, the nation’s largest privately held corporation, closed the mill in 2001. Seven years later, it sold the mill to Ley Metals Recycling for $257,000, less than a quarter of what the plant was worth, according to Sangamon County taxing authorities.
After filing required paperwork with the Illinois EPA and receiving permits, Ley removed asbestos from some of the premises to allow salvage operations, then flipped the plant in 2013 to an Indiana-based salvage company. Sangamon County property records show no sales price; rather, the mill changed hands on a contract-for-deed basis, records show. Neither Jim Ley, owner of Ley Metals, nor owners of the Indiana company could be reached for comment.
The Indiana company owned the mill for less than a year before selling it to PM LLC, an ownership group that includes Chernis, According to court documents, Joseph Chernis, Chernis’ father, helped oversee salvage operations at the mill. “Joey Chernis was generally in charge of the facility and its demolition,” lawyers for the state wrote in a 2015 motion asking that work be stopped. Paperwork in the county recorder’s office shows that no money changed hands when the Chernises acquired the property. Once again, the deal was on a contract-for-deed basis, according to county records, that presumably involved a cut of whatever monies were realized from scrap operations.
Chernis and his father have a history with Springfield code enforcers. After acquiring a long-vacant icehouse near Lincoln’s home on Edwards Street via foreclosure, the Chernises in 2013 leveled the building, then let the debris sit for more than a year, prompting court intervention to force a proper cleanup even as the Chernises prepared to acquire the Pillsbury plant.
That the mill was approaching a brink wasn’t a secret. In 2006, after public brainstorming sessions cosponsored by the Illinois EPA, an arm of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce published a report suggesting what might be done with the vacant site, which was still owned by Cargill. Among the suggestions was a tax-increment financing district.
“We’re committed to pursuing this until we have exhausted all our resources, or we have some alternatives,” Bradley Warren, director of the chamber group, told the State Journal-Register in 2006. Two years later, Cargill sold the mill for scrap, with no other plans for the future in sight.
Pillsbury Mill isn’t alone, and perfect answers are rare. In western New York state, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last spring ordered the Beech-Nut Baby Food Co. to pay cleanup costs at a vacant factory the company sold in 2013, after determining that asbestos cleanup costs would total $1.7 million for half of the 27-acre site. The sales price plummeted from $1 million to $200,000 after cleanup costs became known, according to media reports. Beech-nut refused to obey the EPA cleanup order, saying that asbestos problems were caused by improper demolition after the company sold the property to a salvage company that didn’t pay property taxes. Late last year, Montgomery County, where the factory is located, agreed to pay to remove asbestos from the site at a cost that could reach $10 million. The county is hoping that state and federal grants will kick in.
Cargill did not respond to an emailed inquiry asking why the company didn’t remove asbestos before selling the Springfield mill or otherwise ensure that the plant wouldn’t end up a Superfund site. The cleanup overseen by the federal EPA in Springfield has cost $1.8 million. Nearly 2,200 tons of contaminated debris has been removed.
“These types of facilities that have asbestos are all over the country,” says Turner, who says he’s overseen at least a dozen government-funded cleanups of such sites in Illinois since he began work in the Superfund program in 1989. “There was nothing in Pillsbury that scared me. There was nothing in Pillsbury that made me nervous or that I had not dealt with before. The only thing with Pillsbury was its size. It was the largest cleanup of this nature that I have ever done.”
And the job isn’t finished. Turner believes demolition is the next logical step, although he acknowledges that he doesn’t know who would pay or what it might cost. For now, an injunction barring any scrapping operations remains in place as part of a lawsuit filed by the state against Chernis and other mill owners for improper disposal of asbestos. In addition, Chernis is awaiting sentencing in federal court after pleading guilty to charges relating to improper cleanup of asbestos and making false statements in the state court case. Jail time is mandatory under federal sentencing protocols. Mark Wykoff, Chernis’ attorney, declined comment.
An obsolete mill. A massive amount of asbestos. A series of deals conveying title from one scrap company to the next. And now, a post-apocalyptic scene ringed by cyclone fence and razor wire in the midst of residential neighborhood. Was this something that anyone should have seen coming? Yes, Richmond acknowledges.
“Like a freight train,” he says.
Contact Bruce Rushton at