Hazelwood recycling plant draws vermin

Across the tracks in Hazelwood, piles of blue bags on the open-air docks at Pittsburgh Recycling Services had been drawing rats even before the company declared bankruptcy in January. They have also drawn the neighborhood's ire.

Ahead of a Monday hearing in bankruptcy court, Action United organized a protest rally near the site on Vespucius Street Friday. About 40 people, a few of them children, gathered near a 12-foot inflatable rat, chanted "We want our neighborhood back," and they called out Tri-State Industries of San Raphael, Calif., to clean up its property.

"We are living in a landfill," said Phyllis Allen of the Greater Hazelwood African-American Forum. "You can't go to Squirrel Hill and do this. You can't go to Oakland and do this. Well, this is Hazelwood, PA. We are not a Third World country."

Paradoxically, the mountain of recyclables is an asset. After paying municipalities for items to be recycled, companies sort and bale them for resale. The city's unpaid bill to Pittsburgh Recycling Services for recyclables received totals $100,000, according to Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto.

The company filed for relief from debts worth almost $3 million.

A sale of the business is pending, but a non-compete challenge against the prospective buyer is expected to be heard on Monday.

The money the company owes the city also may be one of the issues raised at the hearing, Mr. McNulty wrote in an email. The city has a temporary contract with Waste Management on Neville Island for recyclable dropoff while a long-term contract is out for bid, he wrote.

City Councilman Corey O'Connor told the protest crowd he hopes for "a ruling to let us use our resources to go in and clean this up. This is terrible for our neighborhood."

The Allegheny County Health Department got the court's permission in March to enter the property to lay bait.

"We had received a number of complaints about rodent activity," said health department spokesman Guillermo Cole. "We did extensively bait and feel it alleviated the problem but it didn't eliminate it. We and the state DEP are monitoring the situation."

He said the company had been out of compliance even before it closed.

"We cited for numerous violations on many inspections going back a year -- for rodent activity and a significant backlog of materials," Mr. Cole said. "They were assessed a $57,600 civil penalty but that's on hold now.

"We would expect the new owner to address the issues we identified."

"We're worried that these rats will hurt one of our children, or spread disease," said Hazel Blackman, a Hazelwood resident and president of Action United's Pittsburgh Region Council. "We want this site cleaned up now."

Lori Markey, who worked at Pittsburgh Recycling Services as office manager for three years, said she is owed five weeks of back pay. Twenty-eight former employees are listed in court documents as being owed wages, salaries and commissions.

The bankruptcy documents list pages of companies and employees the company owes money. They owe for legal, accounting, tire and pest control services; they owe an underwriter for worker's comp insurance; they owe Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority $5,899 for water and the state police $252.50 on a citation for improper load securement.

The documents list the value of tractors, trucks, trailers, scales, conveyors, excavators, balers, a pressure washer, office furniture. A single-stream sorting system alone has a value of $1.5 million.

Neither the tonnage of the recyclables nor its value could be determined.

Residents and others who advocate for Hazelwood's image are concerned that bankruptcy limbo will turn the blue bag mountain into a stench zone as the weather warms.

"We have been working on this issue for months," said Jim Richter, executive director of the Hazelwood Initiatives. He said that besides rats, there were pot holes that held standing water and that debris sometimes would fly off the property.

The conditions amount to abuse "against folks who don't have the political clout to up against the big guns," he said.

Mr. O'Connor said he met Wednesday with representatives of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"They are looking into it to see what they can do," he said. "The EPA might have to get involved. It's just a shame that we have to sit back and watch this. If there is a sale, it might take a few months to get things up and running, but as long as we're in limbo in the courts, it's going to get worse."

Neither Tri-State Industries nor its attorney could be reached for comment.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk. First Published May 2, 2014 12:24 PM

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