Helena Chemical, a tenant in this warehouse in Forward Township, is locked in a legal dispute with the building’s owner.
FORWARD TWP — A business owner is suing a tenant in his warehouse along Evans City Road, claiming that the company stored illegal amounts of toxic chemicals that made his employees sick. Pasquale Verona owns the warehouse along with his son Michael, who operates Marcellus Gasfield Services out of the 72,500-square-foot building. When the father and son combination bought the warehouse nine months ago, they inherited a tenant who was already leasing 9,200 square feet of the building. That tenant is Helena Chemical, a national business with satellite offices across the country. It didn’t take long for some of Michael Verona’s 135 employees to start complaining of headaches, respiratory problems and other ailments. Pasquale Verona said he offered a simple edict to the company: clean up or get out. According to Verona, the company responded with a lawsuit. Verona has since responded with a lawsuit of his own. The older Verona last week submitted an official complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, complaining that he and his employees are at risk because of the “unconscionable and possible illegal actions” of Helene Chemical storing unsafe and illegal amounts of chemicals there. According to Verona, an independent company hired to inspect the warehouse in December found that Helena Chemical loaded and moved 11 tons of highly toxic chemicals away from the location in an effort to fall within legal limits. In an e-mail to the Butler Eagle, Verona claimed that the company has moved more than eight tons of “toxic, combustible and dangerous” chemicals in an effort to “conceal and hide their illegal behavior.” In addition, he claimed the company might have more than 50 tons of chemicals remaining in the warehouse. In Verona’s opinion, this isn’t an isolated incident. “Look, they have 450 locations,” he said. “They know what they’re doing. They admit that they go to smaller communities where there’ll be less scrutiny because they can be free and loose.” In addition, Verona isn’t happy with the way the situation was handled by officials in Forward Township. In a letter to federal officials with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Verona claimed that the company intimidated local officials to the point that those officials left them alone. “(Helena Chemical officials) have so intimidated the small Butler County Department of Emergency Services that they are willing to accept falsified reports,” he said in the report. Verona went on to say in the report that Forward Township’s prior code enforcement officer went to Helena officials and told them that Verona was planning to sue the company. That official has since been replaced with another code enforcement manager who “backed down after he had some discussions with the chemical company’s Philadelphia law firm.” In addition, Verona said that Forward Township officials hit the company with an “order to show cause/order to vacate” motion months ago. “We know that man and Helena’s attorneys met, and nothing happened,” Verona said. “It’s been all quiet since October. You don’t serve a court order and forget about it.” Alison Foster, a spokesman for Helena Chemical’s lawyers, said in an e-mailed statement that the company isn’t backing down from Verona and is cooperating with authorities. “Helena has fully cooperated with OSHA, and will continue to be engaged in any further process that may be involved in resolving this matter.” Steve Bicehouse, the director of the county’s emergency services department, debunked Verona’s claims Thursday that his agency was intimidated by the chemical company. “(Verona) came to us with his concerns and we explained to him that we’re a planning and response agency, not an enforcement agency,” he said. “If we have a very strong suspicion a company is lying, we’ll report them. We have no authority to go into a company to inspect them or write tickets or fines. All of that goes through other state agencies.” We’re not on his side or their side. We’re just doing what we can do under the letter of the law, which is nothing.” Bicehouse went on to say that the chemical company has never even contacted him regarding the matter. “We contacted the company and they provided us with everything they needed to under the law,” he said. “(Verona) claims that there are additional chemicals still in the warehouse, and we have no proof of that. We also have him saying that they’re moving chemicals. But for a chemical warehouse, I think that’s expected.” Bicehouse added that his agency contacted the state Department of Environmental Protection about Verona’s concerns, and that the agency subsequently found no cause for concern during a recent inspection. OSHA is investigating the warehouse, but officials based out of Pittsburgh declined to offer additional details Thursday. A person reached at Helena Chemical Thursday referred questions to the company’s lawyers in Philadelphia, who didn’t respond to a call for comment. Thomas May, the solicitor for Forward Township, also didn’t respond to calls for comment.