The Recorder – Orange ‘caught between a rock and a hard place’ on cereal factory cleanup

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ORANGE — As the town grapples with how to handle the aftermath of the June 4 fire at the former cereal factory at 16-36 West River St., Town Administrator Gabriele Voelker says Orange is ineligible for public grants to offset cleanup costs because it does not own the property.

Voelker informed the Selectboard on Wednesday that the town has spent a little more than $400,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money on the cleanup projected to cost $3.8 million.

“And I’m not sure ($400,000) is the final number because we still have some bills coming in,” she said in the Town Hall meeting room, adding that the town plans to put a lien on the property. She said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has advised Orange not to assume ownership of the property via tax taking because that would subject the municipality to the $3.8 million liability.

Voelker explained she halted the cleanup work so as to not spend any more money “until we know where we’re headed.” There was asbestos in the former cereal factory’s window glazing, which is now commingled in the structure’s rubble, meaning the site is considered contaminated.

Three juveniles — with ages ranging from 12 and 14 — were identified late on June 6 and face criminal charges in connection with the suspected arson. Due to their ages, their names are not being released. At least 20 fire departments responded. The fire sent embers into the air and some landed on the vacant former blacksmith shop near 24 East River St., causing so much damage that it had to be demolished. The vacant buildings at 58 and 50 South Main St. also sustained damage.

“We have cleaned up as far as we can go with our resources,” Voelker said Wednesday.

She mentioned there were initial efforts to salvage steel and wooden beams, only for the state Department of Environmental Protection to inform the town the entire site is contaminated. She said the debris, including 7,000 tons of brick, must be hauled to a specific facility in Ohio. Cleanup will require 270 truckloads, each costing between $10,000 and $12,000. Voelker said about 18 truckloads have been removed so far.

She also mentioned MassDEP requires the town to cover the debris with plastic that must be replaced every six months. According to the Orange Assessors’ Office, 16-36 West River St. is owned by Karmacan LLC, of 305 Commandants Way in Chelsea. Voelker explained MassDEP is responsible for finding any owners and holding them accountable.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, are trying to get the state Legislature to appropriate ARPA money for the cleanup, Voelker added. The town administrator said Comerford and Whipps have done a wonderful job advocating for Orange during this ordeal.

Jane Peirce, who chairs the Selectboard, asked Voelker what will happen if no one can locate the owners and the Legislature does not dole out any ARPA money to help.

“Then we’re stuck with it the way it is,” Voelker responded.

“Forever,” Peirce alluded.

“Forever,” Voelker replied, “unless the town is willing to pony up the money to clean it up.”

The town administrator stressed the importance of revisiting this topic to discuss next steps.

Selectboard member Richard Sheridan agreed, saying the town is “caught between a rock and a hard place.”

“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he said in regards to taking ownership of the property.

Reach Domenic Poli at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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