A small town was left with a pile of asbestos-infused rubble and a roughly $4 million bill to clean it up when an intense blaze destroyed a vacant mill building in Orange, Massachusetts, this weekend.
The town was already trying to address the asbestos in the long-abandoned building, but after three kids allegedly set it on fire Saturday, officials are asking for financial support to clean up the contaminated pile of debris, which poses health and environmental risks — both in Orange and the Millers River.
"Orange is a very financially challenged town, a very economically depressed town, and we have received a quote that it's going to cost up to or in excess of $4 million to remove the debris from that fire and the remaining debris of that building," Fire Chief James Young told NBC Boston. "It's just too much for the town of Orange to handle."
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It took more than 20 fire departments from neighboring towns and across state lines to put out the massive fire, which destroyed a total of four buildings. A hazmat team was on site to test the air quality, since the former mill on West River Street was known to have asbestos.
With a population of around 7,500, the small town near the New Hampshire border was already going through a lengthy legal process to get permission to remove the asbestos and tear it down. West River Street, a major thoroughfare, was closed indefinitely in March because the building was deemed structurally unsound.
Now Orange is left with a potential hazmat situation that is prompting safety and environmental concern — asbestos is known to cause cancer, and the rubble itself is dangerous to anyone who ventures onto it.
"It is an imminent danger to the public. You have the river flowing right by it. You have a hydroelectric plant right there on the river. We're concerned about the other buildings. So right now we have fenced it off," Town Administrator Gabriele Voelker said. "This is a first-time experience for us. We've never experienced a fire of this magnitude."
Contaminants from the rubble could run off into the nearby Millers River, Voelker said. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection was expected to visit the site Friday, test the water and issue a report with recommendations on how to remove the debris.
In the meantime, the pile approximately the size of a football field is fenced off.
"We're really hoping to get some state aid — that's our biggest need right now — so we don't economically devastate this town," Voelker said.
The building, a former cereal factory, was abandoned around 15 to 20 years ago. There had been ambiguity around who owned and was responsible for the building in the years preceding the fire, officials said, complicating the cleanup effort now.
Property records show the building was acquired in December 2019 by a limited liability company; a principal of the company owes more than $13,000 in back taxes. A lawyer who formerly represented the principal, who could not be reached for comment, confirmed that he managed a different LLC that filed for bankruptcy in November 2020.
Finding Funds to Clean Up the Debris
With the end of the fiscal year in sight, state Rep. Susannah Whipps and her counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Joanne Comerford, are pushing to get state funding for the town. Whipps, who represents Orange and 11 other towns, noted that her district is home to residents who were displaced by the Quabbin Reservoir, which provides water to the Greater Boston Area.
"I always remind people of the Quabbin Reservoir," Whipps said. "Many of my families came from towns that were flooded for that resource. We provide to 3 million people who get water from [Massachusetts Water Resources Authority], which comes from our region. When they have a fire, they’re using water from Quabbin. We don’t drink or use it."
The debris likely has to be shipped to Ohio because so few places take this kind of contaminated material, Whipps said, and with the rising cost of gas and lack of drivers, it will be even more expensive to transport it.
"We do have a truck driver shortage in the in the country and with the price of gasoline, I mean, the cost -- had this happened two years ago compared to now -- it could easily be doubled," Whipps said. "Now we're left with a giant pile of rubble... and it's really a 'Time is of the essence' issue. It's not something that can sit for months or years. It has to be dealt with quickly."
The lawmakers are asking the House Ways and Means Committee to include the cost in the next supplemental budget, which is due by the end of the month and requires approval from the Senate and Gov. Charlie Baker.
"Orange is a small town and a town that has struggled fiscally for many years," Whipps said. "Four million dollars for the town of Orange — it's an insurmountable amount of money. When you look at the Commonwealth, we have a $45 billion budget; it doesn’t seem so insurmountable."
A spokesperson for House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz said the Committee is "still reviewing funding requests for the supplemental budget." Speaker Ronald Mariano's office did not respond to requests for comment on the proposal.
Meanwhile, three kids between the ages of 12 and 14 are facing arson charges in connection with the blaze. The case will proceed in the Orange Juvenile Court, according to the Northwestern District Attorney's Office. Two people were treated on scene for minor injuries.
"This was certainly one of the largest fires that I've seen in my career," Young said. "I can't thank the surrounding towns and communities to mutual aid enough for the work that they did. It was a bad situation for us, but it had the potential to be much worse than what it was."