SEBRING — Arrest warrants have been issued for the operators of a now-derelict industrial shop, who are accused of illegally storing tens of thousands of pounds of hazardous waste in the rundown building on the outskirts of a residential neighborhood.
They’re now facing felony charges and possible prison time.
Sebring Industrial Plating is a dilapidated, about 600-square-foot garage that’s long sat vacant on the very edge of a residential allotment along West Tennessee Avenue. Inside is thousands of gallons of hazardous waste that may be seeping onto neighboring properties.
The once-thriving business fell into ruin years ago and has been targeted for cleanup by the state and federal EPA, but records show the violations — some linked to the business’ previous operator — have mostly gone uncorrected for years.
During a warranted search of the 0.12-acre site in late March, Ohio EPA investigators found at least 38,000 pounds of hazardous waste, some of which had been at the site since 2016, according to a notice of violation filed late last month. That's 19 tons. To store less than half of that, a hazardous waste license is required.
Village Solicitor Gary Van Brocklin on Monday charged operators Samual L. Hopper Jr., 24, and Brian Andrews Hopper, 22, both of Sebring, as well as the business’ former operator, Richard Sickelsmith, 63, of New Waterford, with felony counts of operating a hazardous waste facility without a license and storing hazardous waste at a facility without a license. The business itself is also named as a criminal defendant.
The Hoppers haven’t been seen at the site since at least January, Van Brocklin said.
Sebring Area Court Judge Joe Schiavoni issued arrest warrants for the three ahead of their Thursday preliminary hearings in that court, records show.
“I can’t really make any comment except to say that they polluted the heck out of the place,” Van Brocklin told Mahoning Matters on Monday. “We’re applying to the U.S. EPA to clean it up.”
Sebring Industrial Plating has been identified as one of 27 U.S. EPA superfund sites in the Mahoning Valley. Superfund sites are contaminated locations that require long-term remediation.
Toxic chemicals found
Among the findings reported in the EPA’s April 28 notice of violation against Sebring Industrial Plating:
- Corrosive and/or chromium waste was found in seven tanks associated with the business’ former plating line. Solid chromium was also found on the floor around those tanks. Chromium is extremely toxic, according to the U.S. EPA. One type of chromium compound can cause cancer when inhaled.
- At least five 55-gallon containers had corrosive, chromium or cadmium waste in them. Cadmium is also considered highly toxic, according to the EPA. It’s known to cause long-lasting lung impairment when inhaled and is likely to be carcinogenic to humans.
- Cadmium was also found in the building’s non-operating wastewater treatment tank and floor sump.
Investigators have found, in all, about 8,000 gallons of waste liquid once used in the plating process, Van Brocklin said.
There are also holes in the building’s roof, which allow precipitation inside.
Van Brocklin, who was hired less than two years ago, said he doesn’t know if any of the material has escaped the site, which is surrounded on all sides by residential properties. Cleanup orders issued by the EPA director to Sickelsmith in December 2018 indicate an “undetermined amount of unknown liquids” escaped the building the prior September and ended up on adjacent properties and in the village’s stormwater system, prompting an emergency response from the EPA.
The village fire chief has also expressed concern about the property.
“We’re concerned about a fire. We’re concerned about a lot of different things, and we’re trying to get this put on the fast track to the U.S. EPA,” Van Brocklin said.
‘It’s too dangerous’
Neighbors who spoke with Mahoning Matters on Monday said fire officials regularly check on the site. Officials have urged them to call police if they see the site’s operators come back.
Some were unaware of what’s been hiding behind the garage door all these years. Others, like Patricia Wilson, were well aware. Her property line is just feet away from one of the site’s underground storage tanks, just feet away from where she’s trying to grow blueberries.
“It’s gotta go. … They need to clean this place up. It’s too dangerous,” said Wilson, who’s lived in her West Tennessee Avenue home for six years.
She said she meets with inspectors whenever they visit the site. Inside, she’s seen spray cans stacked at least 15 feet high, she said.
“It’s scary living here because you don’t know what’s going on,” Wilson said.
One long-time neighbor — who asked not to be named — said some of the nearby properties have taken on runoff from the two acid pits that were once on-site. She wanted to plant flowers and a vegetable garden but “they said it might not be advisable.”
They sought PPP funding
Despite West Tennessee neighbors’ assertions that the site has long been inactive, Sebring Industrial Plating was one of numerous Paycheck Protection Program loan awardees, according to ProPublica. The business was approved for a $7,510 loan in August from Huntington National Bank to cover payroll costs of three employees. That loan’s status, however, was not disclosed.
The business reported itself as a “new business” less than 2 years old. Ohio Secretary of State records show it was first formed in 1965. Sickelsmith then assumed agency in 2014. Records show Sickelsmith handed the business off to Samual Hopper in March 2020.
Sebring Industrial Plating’s five parcels along West Tennessee Avenue have more than $35,000 in delinquent property taxes between them, according to Mahoning County Auditor records.
Court records show several banks have recently won civil money complaints or garnishments against the business in several years, some totaling tens of thousands of dollars.
If convicted on their two felony counts, the Hoppers each face two to four years in prison and fines ranging from $10,000 to $25,000, Van Brocklin said.
Following the March inspection, village authorities also charged the Hoppers with theft of services, for allegedly stealing electricity at the site. Those charges are still pending.
Each later posted a $4,000 bond and was released from the Mahoning County Jail.