The following story was written by Leia Larsen for The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Ogden • Last year, when artist Collin Noortmann Chandler learned Ogden had purchased the old Swift meatpacking plant, with plans to demolish it, he wanted in.
Rising above the banks of the Weber River with “Swift” painted in red and white on its east-facing wall, the massive industrial building is one of the first things visitors see as they enter downtown Ogden. The iconic, now deteriorating, Swift Building has been absorbed into Ogden’s latest revitalization project, the Ogden Business Exchange.
“The city’s going through changes in terms of a lot of these older properties. I figured it might be nice to actually document things artistically before they’re gone,” Chandler said. But when Chandler sought permission to photograph the site, he was soundly and repeatedly rebuffed by the city, with officials citing vague safety concerns.
“It was pretty clear to me they didn’t want a whole bunch of cameras around,” Chandler said.
It turns out, there was a good reason.
Beginning this spring, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emergency response unit and a team of contractors mobilized at the site. Decked out in Tyvek suits and respirators, the crew works 11-hour shifts six days a week, trying to clean up a mind-boggling amount of flammable, explosive and toxic materials abandoned at the property, outside and on every one of the building’s five floors.
Workers have found tens of thousands of containers with dangerous chemicals stockpiled at the site. The team has yet to do a full inventory because the building is in such rough shape. Years of leaking water have collapsed portions of the roof and floors, leaving two areas inaccessible.
“Large parts of my brain are occupied with how to navigate this,” said Paul Peronard, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator. “I guess the cliché is eating an elephant. If you’re eating the elephant a bite at a time, eventually you’ll get it done. You can’t think about it all at once.”
The tab to assess and remove chemical hazards at the site is in the ballpark of $2 million. Peronard figures the effort will last through August, possibly longer.
The EPA is using the Superfund to cover its costs — taxpayer money that the agency will aggressively work to recover. The question becomes who will pay: Ogden taxpayers or the person who stockpiled the chemicals in the first place?
Toxic case lots
Ogden businessman Bert Smith, a founder of Smith and Edwards, bought the building sometime in the 1960s and owned it until he died in 2016, taking many of its secrets with him to the grave.
Smith had a reputation for clashing with the federal government, especially when it came to public lands management. The multimillionaire and strict constitutionalist called himself “Mr. Sagebrush Rebellion.” He openly praised the Cliven Bundy family, which had a standoff with federal land managers in Nevada over grazing fees and helped to stage an armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. He had close relationships with many Utah lawmakers and helped to fund the movement to contest the federal government’s ownership of millions of acres of Western lands.
But Smith built his fortune with the help of the federal government, buying up military surplus after World War II and selling it at his sprawling northern Utah business, Smith and Edwards.
The federal government also is the only agency with the resources to clean up what he left behind in the Swift Building.
Smith briefly operated a boat shop out of the first floor of the structure, then leased a portion of the building to a now-defunct chemical manufacturer in the 1980s. Most of the space was used to store military surplus goods.
While the short-lived chemical manufacturing tenant could be the source of some of the hazardous materials stockpiled in the building, it doesn’t explain why so many of the materials are in containers stamped with telltale signs of the military.
Peronard has a theory as to how they got there.
“In the old days, and certainly the Department of Defense has gotten much better at this, they would package lots together. You’d have jeeps, a desk, and all this solvent,” Peronard said. “So if you wanted the jeep or the desk, you had to buy the whole lot. They were pretty notorious for getting rid of all their old chemicals and stuff by making you buy the whole lot.”
From 1986 to 1989 alone, DOD reported $5 million in hazardous materials surplus sales. But the department avoided $170 million in costs by selling those materials to the public rather than properly disposing of them.
The Department of Defense began tightening up its hazardous chemical sales to civilians after a 1990 Government Accountability Office report documented gross negligence.
In one case, a surplus sales office sold an Idaho man 43 containers of DS2 — an agent the military used to decontaminate equipment after chemical warfare. DS2 can cause severe chemical burns, damage the liver and becomes corrosive when mixed with water. The man used the chemical to clean car parts, unaware of its danger.
Over time, many military surplus businesses became notorious environmental cleanup sites.
Remediation of the Eastern Surplus Co. out of Meddybemps, Maine, took more than two decades due to the abundant chemicals improperly stored at the site. Like the Swift Building, the property was located on the banks of a river.
If the Swift Building had burned or collapsed, and its stockpiled chemicals found their way into the Weber River, “that would be bad,” Peronard said in what seems a gross understatement.
“We have weird things in there, like civil defense toilets from the 1950s with these sani-packs that are a biocide,” he said. “It turns out to be incredibly toxic to aquatic materials. The last thing you want to do it is put that in the river.”
In many military surplus store cleanups, the EPA held the business owners liable for at least some of the cleanup costs. But when Ogden negotiated purchase of the property from Smith’s estate, it agreed to release the sellers from any environmental cleanup liability.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA — the federal law that governs the Superfund — mandates that the government recover its cleanup costs from all current and past owners of a property. It does, however, allow new property owners to avoid liability if they conduct due diligence with an environmental site assessment before purchase.
Ogden had such an assessment done at the Swift Building in 2014, but the inspector didn’t have access to the property. She could view the property only from behind a locked gate and had no way of knowing what was inside.
City officials never accessed the site until after the sale contract had been inked in April 2017.
“This is the worst building that I’ve seen,” said Brandon Cooper, Ogden’s economic development director. “I was a little surprised about the volume of stuff that needed to be taken care of.”
The city came back to the sellers three months later, in July 2017, with an amendment reducing the purchase price for the seven-acre site from $1.09 million to $400,000.
“The drop in price was reflective of what we anticipated cleanup [costs] to be, Cooper said. “I think the fact [the sellers] were willing to agree to a reduced price shows they were accepting of that and realized what they were dealing with.”
The city hired a consultant to evaluate the extent of the property’s chemical storage before closing and the estimate came back at about 300 containers of hazardous materials. Cooper’s office applied for an EPA Brownfields grant to help cover cleanup costs, but the agency quickly realized the project was much bigger in scope.
The EPA’s emergency response team took over cleanup operations April 1. To date, Peronard estimates there about 60,000 containers of hazardous materials.
“Container” can mean anything from a 55-gallon drum to an aerosol can the size of a hairspray dispenser. But even a few ounces of certain materials can do a lot of damage. For example, Peronard found 30 pounds of mercury spilled on the floor. Mercury vaporizes at room temperature and small quantities can be highly toxic to the nervous system.
EPA also found and neutralized more than 7,600 pounds of water-reactive chemicals. Those products were generally wrapped in small packages for Army use as flameless personal heaters. Even a few grams react violently with water and release hydrogen gas, making the material highly flammable.
“You have a fire here in the building and the fire department comes,” Peronard said. “Well, firemen usually spray water. That makes things worse.”
The Swift Building has scars of recent fires on its north side, where steel beams twisted and contorted from the heat.
One blaze, in 2008, was sparked by teenagers playing with fireworks. It burned three floors and exploded stored ammunition. A second fire started late one evening in April 2014. Nineteen firefighters and emergency responders were able to put out the blaze quickly, but they learned of the fire only because a passerby noticed smoke and alerted authorities.
Now that he knows what’s inside, Ogden Fire Chief Mike Mathieu said he’s alerted his staff not to enter if the building if it ever burns again. It’s too dangerous.
A large enough blaze could mean emergency responders would need to evacuate nearby businesses and neighborhoods because of the toxic fumes as well.
“Civilians could have been injured or killed. That’s why it’s so important that EPA’s there,” Mathieu said. “I’ve been chief for over 20 years, and we’ve never had an incident of this scale with the volume of chemicals there and in the manner they’re stored. It’s not good that it’s in our community at all.”
‘A worthwhile investment’
The city already has spent $500,000 on asbestos abatement at the site. It still needs to budget for razing the building and disposing of all its nonhazardous junk. The city has yet to solicit bids for demolition.
“We don’t have an idea of what that expenditure would be, but our budget is $500,000,” Cooper said.
(Peronard figures demolition costs will be closer to $2 million).
Even with costs piling up, Cooper said the mitigated community risk makes the Swift Building a worthwhile investment for the city to take over and clean up, rather than letting it continue to deteriorate.
“If [the Smith family] even attempted to clean up the property, it would take much longer than if we were able to take care of it ourselves,” Cooper said.
For Ogden taxpayers who might be unhappy to be stuck with the bill, Cooper noted the city is “blessed” with revenue from rent collected at Business Depot Ogden, another redevelopment project completed in the 1990s. That rent income will pay for the cleanup, not dollars from the general fund, Cooper said. (Still, his office has proposed diverting at least $165,000 from the general fund to mitigate the site since 2017.)
“It’s not taxpayer money in the sense of property tax, sales tax, franchise fees. These are actually lease revenues,” Cooper said.
Ben Nadolski is chairman of the Ogden City Council, which approves annual budgets and essentially controls the city’s purse strings. He said he has mixed feelings about the high cost of the Swift Building cleanup.
“On the one hand, it gives you anxiety thinking about the extra cost,” Nadolski said. “On the other hand, the worse you find out it is, the more thankful you are we’re taking action at least.”
Amy Wicks, a former three-term council member, said making the city foot the entire bill for the Swift Building’s cleanup means money gets funneled away from other city improvements.
“Those funds have been pledged for specific projects. It could be used for a litany of other things in the city,” she said. “If you’re flushing all this money into a Superfund cleanup site that the city has somehow ended up with, what is not being done?”
The council has approved $2.2 million for work at the Swift property to date.
The question remains whether the fortunes of the Smith family should be tapped toward shouldering cleanup costs.
Because it’s a private company, it’s hard to know what Smith and Edwards is worth, but it’s almost certainly in the millions. D&B Hoovers estimates Smith and Edwards makes $20.6 million in annual revenue. Glassdoor.com estimates the company’s revenue is between $10 million and $25 million each year. Then there’s Bert Smith’s obscure nonprofit, the National Federal Lands Conference, which reported assets worth $9.6 million in 2017.
Smith’s relatives remain closemouthed about the Swift Building’s past, although a digital history of the family’s connections to the Ogden Stockyards reveals at least some of them spent considerable time exploring the property and combing through its mysterious contents.
Bert Smith’s grandson, Craig Smith, became president of Smith and Edwards Co. in 2013 and helped open a second store in West Jordan in 2017. He declined to comment on the Swift Building’s history or whether his family bears any legal or moral responsibility for its cleanup.
“We’re a reputable, honest company that does things legitimately,” he said. “I don’t want people in this day and age to think we’re doing bad things.”
A Freedom of Information request submitted to the EPA has yet to reveal whom the federal government might pursue.