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GREAT FALLS – Gail Baker Stalls remembers well the events of June 6, 2006.
“I don’t think I thought it was as serious as it was at first, but when I could smell it inside our house, I knew it was something to take seriously,” Stalls said.
The day etched in Stalls’ mind is the same day many other townspeople have recorded in their minds.
That is the day the former J.P. Stevens Mill No. 3 caught fire. The fire burned for almost seven days and destroyed the mill. Toxic fumes containing hydrochloric acid filled the air and caused about half of the town’s residents to evacuate their homes.
“We left our home,” Stalls said. “We had to take everything we needed.”
Stalls said she and her family spent a week with her mother-in-law several miles outside the town limits. She said was glad they took their dogs or they could have died.
Stalls said the mill property has sentimental value to her. Both of her parents worked in the mill, her father on one shift and her mother on the other.
“They’d switch me off at the gate,” Stalls laughed.
“I hated to see it burn. Together they put three daughters through college,” Stalls said.
“I knew when the fire happened, it was very devastating,” Marsha Collins said.
Collins has lived on Oak Street since 1991. She was forced to leave her home during the fire. Collins’ daughter, Beth, lives in Chester and Collins works in Chester so she was able to stay with her daughter for almost a week.
Collins returned home to find ashes on her porch and other areas, she said.
“I’m tired of looking at it (the mill) the way it is,” Collins said. “It’s an eyesore.”
Marcus Matthews Jr. lives on Duke Street. He said he left home for two days during the fire. Matthews said everybody he talks to hates the way the property looks, seven years after the fire.
“I noticed nothing has been done with the cooling tower but it’s probably full of asbestos. It’s an eyesore around the corner of my house,” Matthews said.
The property resembles a war zone with massive brick beams, charred metal and other debris covering the ground.
Fire was accidental
The fire appeared to have started in the area of CBCL Inc., a $1 million, 150,000-square-feet plastics recycling business that leased a section of the mill. The cause of the fire was ruled accidental.
Several people were inside the business when the fire started though no one was hurt in the fire.
The mill was owned by a father-and-son team, John A. Tibbs and John C. Tibbs, and Mike Katergaris of Katergaris Properties. The Tibbs later transferred the property to Katergaris Properties.
John A. Tibbs said he lost his livelihood when the fire burned the mill. His wife, Margaret, managed a furniture business in the building.
The transfer, according to Tibbs, included more than 16 acres. The mill, before the fire, included 320,000 square feet. About 250,000 square feet was used, Tibbs said.
“The fire was a huge loss to everybody involved,” Tibbs said in an earlier interview.
Katergaris said he bought the Tibbs’ shares. He also said it was not considered a purchase but an agreement between the three. Katergaris lived in New York, but moved to London in 2010.
In June 2008, Katergaris said a clean-up and clearing of the site started in mid-May 2008 was scheduled to be completed in three to six months. He wasn’t sure what his plans were for the property, that he might sell it or put another warehouse on it.
At the time, he said there were no environmental issues at the site. He said the Environmental Protection Agency looked at the site and no issues were found.
In August 2010, Chester County Nuisance and Abatement Officer Ken Mobley said the Department of Health and Environmental Control worked on the clean-up project for six to eight months.
Mobley said there is nothing wrong and DHEC was making follow-up inspections to make sure the clean-up was being done properly and the proper permits were being obtained.
Target Contractors, LLC of Tega Cay, a demolition contractor specializing in industrial mill demolition, was handling the clean-up.
In June 2011, Keith Frost, director of the Air Compliance Management Division, Bureau of Air Quality with DHEC, said there was some asbestos identified and disturbed when the initial clean-up started. He said it was not a lot of asbestos, but DHEC took precautions anyway.
He said Target cleaned up the majority of the site.
Frost said there was no immediate environmental or public health concern at the time.
Target covered the berm area with tarps to prevent any asbestos fibers from going airborne. Frost said the asbestos would not create a hazard unless it is disturbed.
He also said DHEC issued a consent order to Target that outlined the nature of the action taken by DHEC. He said DHEC would continue to do inspections while the clean-up was underway.
In August 2010, Katergaris said there were no environmental issues at the site. He said the clean-up was being done in bits and pieces and would make sure all DHEC regulations were met.
He also said the property would remain as is for the next year. He estimated the clean-up would be completed in three to six months.
Katergaris’ mother, Joanna Katergaris, said her son wants to sell the property.
Great Falls Mayor Don Camp said the property is not owned by the town and there is nothing the town can do about it.
“I don’t know anything about it,” Camp said.
Camp said DHEC has more sites to clean up than it has money.
Camp said the old No. 1 and No. 2 mill properties are also in ruins.
“It has been over seven years and DHEC has been laying stipulations and people have been dragging their feet,” Chester County Councilman Archie Lucas said.
Chester County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey said neither Mobley nor Chester County has control over how long the process will take. DHEC is in control of the clean–up.
“I hope they clean it up,” Stalls said. “They started and quit. It would be a nice place for a park.”
Stalls is concerned the unsightly mill property decreases property values of houses in the mill village.
“I would love to see it turned into something beautiful,” Stalls said.