For almost a decade, Milton junkyard owners Gilbert and Blanche Rhoades operated an unlicensed and uncertified solid-waste facility , or so ruled a Chittenden County judge on February 11. The same judge also made it official that the couple, who own ABC Metals, mismanaged hazardous waste at the site and are subsequently liable for cleaning up soil contaminated with dangerous levels of lead. This recent court decision follows a November 2009 injunction that barred the ’50s-era junkyard from accepting any new scrap metal or other solid waste.
So why is ABC Metals & Recycling still open for business?
That’s what the junkyard’s neighbors keep asking state regulators. As recently as April 15, Lynn Caldwell, a member of the Milton CLEAN citizens’ group and a resident who lives near the junkyard, offered state regulators photographs of at least three new trailers of solid waste arriving at or departing from the site, as well as new piles of wood, insulation and other debris. Caldwell claims this kind of activity has been occurring for years, despite ongoing legal and regulatory actions by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and the Agency of Natural Resources.
Fresh allegations from a former ABC Metals employee bolster Caldwell’s most recent complaint. Matthew Francis of Milton says he worked as ABC Metals’ chief mechanic from 2005 until a few weeks ago, when Gilbert Rhoades fired him. Francis, 45, alleges that Rhoades is still accepting and crushing old cars, in apparent violation of his November 2009 court order. As recently as last week, Francis claims, new cars were moving through the site in a “roll-off box so people couldn’t see what was inside it.” Francis is no longer employed at ABC Metals but continues to live in a trailer on the junkyard property.
None of his claims could be independently verified. However, just last week Francis met with an ANR investigator for more than two hours to discuss “a range of issues” related to ABC Metals. The investigator, Ted Cantwell, could not comment on what was discussed. Likewise, Gary Kessler, director of compliance and enforcement for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, deferred all queries about the ABC Metals case to the AG’s office.
Assistant AG Robert McDougall did confirm that a former Rhoades employee has come forward with new allegations about the junkyard, and the AG’s office is “looking into them.” However, McDougall also could not say anything about the nature of that new information, nor could he speculate on whether, if verified, it could be grounds for a contempt-of-court ruling; the AG’s office failed in its attempt to bring an earlier contempt-of-court claim.
For their part, the Rhoadeses declined to comment on Francis’ allegations. Until recently, Burlington attorney Tom Walsh was representing them. However, court records indicate that Walsh withdrew from the case earlier this year because of unpaid legal bills.
State and federal environmental officials have known for years about problems at the Milton junkyard but have been largely stymied about what to do about them. Chief among their concerns is a mountain of tires that is several hundred feet long and more than 30 feet high. No one knows for sure how many scrap tires are there — many are believed to be buried underground — but estimates range from 50,000 to more than a million. Francis, who claims he helped stack the pile over the last few years, estimates the tires go “50 to 60 feet” below ground level.
It’s no great mystery why government officials have been reluctant to shutter the Rhoadeses’ operation: Neither the town nor the state wants to assume ownership of the property or the potential liability of millions of dollars in environmental cleanup costs. As the DEC’s Kessler put it back in 2008, “If this guy goes out of business today or tomorrow or next week, I don’t know. Bake sale? How else are you going to get all those tires out of there?”
What is known for sure is that Milton’s emergency responders have long been concerned about what will happen if that tire pile ever catches fire. Milton Fire Chief Don Turner has warned that, if that happened, his department would need to call in specialized firefighting crews from out of state, as neither the Milton Fire Department nor any other one in the area has the equipment or expertise to fight such a hazardous blaze.
Neighbor Lynn Caldwell says she’s less concerned about whether ABC Metals stays in business than what the state plans to do about the “dangerously large” tire pile. As she points out, a tire fire at ABC Metals would force an evacuation within a one-mile radius around the junkyard — including a senior center, the police and fire departments, and one of the largest elementary schools in the state.
“I don’t know if the average citizen in Milton thinks about that,” says Caldwell. “But I think about it, and I know the fire chief thinks about it.”
Francis has other concerns. He admits his allegations against his former boss make him look like a disgruntled employee. But he’s worried that if the state later determines that he, too, violated state environmental laws, he could face legal consequences of his own. Francis says he hopes the state will overlook his own violations “because I have information that nobody else is going to give them.
“I came clean with the state, which is very scary for me, because I worked for the man,” Francis adds. “When you’re working for somebody, you do what you’re told.”
By any reckoning, it’s hard to understand how Gil Rhoades has managed to stay in business for as long as he has. In 2008 the Milton Selectboard denied ABC Metals a certificate of approved location, a prerequisite for a state junkyard license. In its decision, the board characterized Rhoades’ plan for removing his tire pile as “inadequate and insufficient” and said his “lack of past performance puts his credibility into question.” The board concluded that Rhoades “has manifested an attitude that his economic needs take priority over all other considerations.”
The Rhoadeses are due back in court on May 11 for a hearing on damages and remedies for their liability.