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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2005 10:07 am

Demolition man

Auburn man’s renovation project goes awry with large release of hazardous asbestos

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The state Environmental Protection Agency inspected and photographed the former nursing home site in September 2004, documenting the construction debris, including asbestos.
PHOTO BY ALAN GRIMMETT/IEPA
Judy Gass was thrilled when she discovered asbestos dumped next door to her house. It was in the form of old floor tiles — not very dangerous, because they were mostly intact — jumbled in with a mountain of rubbish piled on the parking lot of the former Virden Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The nursing home’s new owner, supposedly renovating the facility, had filled two Dumpsters with tiles, insulation, water heaters, and other debris. When he failed to keep up his rent payments on the roll off trucks, the Dumpster lessor had reclaimed the bins — emptying them on the parking lot first. For months, the big pile of waste just sat there. Gass badgered Virden city officials, trying to get someone to force the owner to clean it up. Frustrated, she finally contacted the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, only to be told trash wasn’t their problem. But she knew asbestos was a different matter. A known carcinogen, asbestos is harmless in the form of building materials like drywall and flooring. It turns hazardous if such materials are broken or crushed, releasing tiny fibers into the air. For that reason, the floor tiles mixed with the rubble represented a potential public health problem — and, Gass assumed, an incentive for IEPA to get the mess cleaned up. She paid Precision Analysis Inc. to test a few of the tiles, and was actually relieved when the results showed up to 10 percent asbestos. “I thought this is an answered prayer,” she says. “This will get this unsightly mess gone.”
That was December 2003. In the two years since then, the original rubbish pile eventually disappeared — mysteriously taken away overnight, Gass says — but the situation at the former nursing home has only gotten worse. The property owner, Ray Landers, removed all the drywall from the building by ripping a hole in the side of the facility and hauling board out on a skid loader — releasing more asbestos by pulverizing the wall board. He promised in court to hire a licensed abatement contractor to handle the asbestos, but now claims he has no money to pay for the clean-up. Three environmental firms he hired to deal with the problem haven’t been paid for their work. Landers could not be reached for comment. His home phone is answered by a voice mail device that says the mailbox is full and can’t accommodate more messages. His attorney, Ed Rees, did not respond to a message left at his office. However, Landers hasn’t always kept such a low profile. In the 1990s, he was part-owner of an 87-acre property investors hoped to develop into a $6 million sports complex called Xanadu — a failed venture that later resulted in legal action against one of Landers’ partners. In 2002, he appeared in a State Journal-Register article announcing the development of a Chatham subdivision called Landershire Estates, a 40-acre tract divided into 100 lots for new houses priced at $150,000 and up. Last year, he visited Springfield’s Masonic Center as Grand Royal Patron of the Order of the Amaranth. A short biography posted on the Internet says Landers has traveled to five continents “teaching on finances through the Word of God.” He bought his first home at the age of 13, and his first farm at age 19, having already learned “the art of buying and selling, optioning and trading,” according to the biography. By 25, he was a millionaire, but lost $2 million in 1982. A “miraculous restoration” between the years of 1988 and 1993 “more than replaced all that was previously lost,” and “until this day, God has released Ray to teach the Godly principles which he has learned through the trials of his own life and the lives of others he has known,” the bio states. The profile appeared on a Web site promoting Landers’ March lecture at a church in Australia called River of Praise. In Auburn, where Landers lives on a 40-acre farm, his attempted renovations of a local business has been the subject of several critical editorial columns in the Auburn Citizen, and he sometimes responds with letters to the editor. In a Jan. 6 letter, Landers argued that renovation isn’t always an attractive process. “Progress and development must have controls, but not be lorded over by a tight-pulling stranglehold that hinders progress,” he wrote. “Just driving around and seeing a nicely cleaned-up city is not the answer. Progress is messy. Just keep the end in mind.”
In the same letter, Landers stated that tidying a renovated site requires patience. “I’ve never seen anyone who would not clean up and haul away debris if someone just asked them to and gave them time,” he wrote. Yet, Landers has been cited multiple times for his refusal to clean up. The Illinois Pollution Control Board has fined Landers in three separate cases — twice for open dumping on his own land, most recently in May. IEPA inspectors found construction and demolition debris, garbage and general refuse, lumber, metal, electrical boxes, and a demolished grain elevator. At the Virden nursing home, Landers has repeatedly refused to clean up. Last December, Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed suit against the corporation listed as the legal owner of the facility — Equipping the Saints Ministry, International, Inc. Landers’ wife, Billie, is registered agent for the corporation. In April, IEPA placed a seal order on the facility, and in May, Landers signed an agreed preliminary injunctive order promising proper clean up of the site. He hired environmental engineers who designed an abatement plan, but Landers claimed in court he can’t afford to pay for the work to be done. At a Nov. 21 contempt hearing, the judge ruled that Landers had not willfully failed to comply. Thomas Davis, chief of the attorney general’s environmental bureau, says the fact that the former nursing home is technically owned by Equipping the Saints limits what can be demanded of Landers. “Whether he has money is not really the issue. It’s the corporation,” Davis says. Landers’ well-documented track record of flouting environmental laws, even on his own farm, is likewise irrelevant, Davis says. “We’re just trying to enforce the injunctive relief the court has already issued. Once we have a finding of liability, we can raise evidence as to their past violations,” he says. Gass, who has had her hopes raised and trashed more times than she can count, has new allies in her fight. While the former nursing facility sits boarded up and surrounded by a bright orange fence, Landers’ hazardous waste has trickled down to an adjacent lot where the city of Virden had stacked water pipes for a public works project. Testing has shown those pipes are contaminated with asbestos, and the city wants Landers to pay for replacements. Bill Dodd, the Virden alderman whose ward includes the nursing facility, lives 300 yards from the site. “We here in Virden are very upset, to put it mildly, not only with Landers but with IEPA and the attorney general’s office,” he says. “I always thought they had a little more power and a little more clout than they’ve shown. . . . It’s been too long sitting there and nothing done.”
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