Time to bring down hammer on Ohio Leather Works owner

It’s not surprising that Maryland- based Navy Friends Inc., owner of the former Ohio Leather Works site in Girard, continues to thumb its nose at the city, and now the state of Ohio. It has been doing that for almost two decades.

Thus, we should be forgiven for not being impressed with the Ohio Attorney General’s attempt to facilitate a negotiated settlement between Navy Friends and Girard.

The facts are clear, as they have been since 1995 when Navy Friends bought the 27-acre property — 24 years after Ohio Leather Works closed its doors because of being unable to compete with cheap foreign imports of leather products. An arson fire gutted the building several months after the purchase.

Because the company failed to clean up the fire-damaged structure, the city was forced to do so for safety reasons. It billed the owner for the $75,000 cost of demolition, but had trouble collecting — even with a court order.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office must not ignore the history of this case as it offers Girard representatives an “opportunity to participate in settlement discussions.”

Time to get tough

State lawyers must make it clear to Navy Friends officials that this is not a negotiating session in which both parties have equal standing. They should also make it known that the company’s failure to address the violations and findings issued by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency will result in a lawsuit.

After the fire, the city worked with the Ohio EPA in negotiating with the property owner on buying the land, but those talks stalled.

In January of this year, Mayor James Melfi said he wanted to begin foreclosure proceedings so the city could obtain the land. He speculated that the owners would not pay the $75,000 cost of cleaning up the debris from the fire because the site has major environmental problems.

Since 1998, the Ohio EPA has found numerous hazardous waste violations, including traces of hexavalent chromium, the chemical used on leather.

Ohio Leather Works operated on the site along Route 422 for more than 70 years. The plant took skin hides from stockyards in Chicago and turned them into leather apparel.

When the Maryland investors bought the plant and land, they talked about building an apartment complex.

The great unknowns

The cost of the environmental cleanup of the property has not been revealed. Indeed, at the beginning of the year, Andrew Kocher, an EPA site coordinator, said the agency did not know the extent of the contamination.

“We don’t know what’s underneath the building,” Kocher said.

Whatever it is, the owner must be held responsible for making the site environmentally sound.

The OEPA in May asked the Attorney General’s Office to file a lawsuit against Navy Friends Inc, and Berk Realty for failing to address the violations and findings that had been presented by the agency.

“They did not fully comply with our orders, so we sent it to the attorney general’s office,” an EPA spokesman told The Vindicator recently. Such an admission shows why it’s time to bring the hammer down on Navy Friends Inc.

The 27 acres along one of Girard’s main thoroughfares has been lying dormant for far too long. Mayor Melfi has said he wants the property to be cleaned up environmentally so it can be developed again.

The Maryland-based owner must not be allowed to get away with thumbing its nose at the city and the state.

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