This is the power house of the former mill; inside, it is littered with toxic, loose asbestos after its previous owner stripped scrap metal from the site. EPA will clean up the asbestos and demolish the building this spring. (Photo provided)

EPA set to demolish building at Otsego mill

Ryan Lewis, Editor

Cleanup crews will return to Otsego’s former Rock Tenn paper mill at 431 Helen St. this spring.

In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will remove toxic asbestos from the mill’s power house and then demolish the large, deteriorating building.

“We’re waiting until the warmer weather because of the need to keep the entire building wet,” said EPA on-site coordinator Paul Ruesch. “We’ll be using blowers to spray mist across the worksite to keep the dust down. You can’t do that in the (freezing) cold.”

Keeping dust settled will be key to removing the asbestos, as it is being removed precisely because its microscopic fibers can be inhaled and irritate lungs. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said long-term exposure can cause lung scarring, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

The substance was often used in insulation. Though its use was banned in the 1970s, the material is often still present in older buildings.

The project will take approximately two months.

It was spurred after Allegan County and Otsego city officials requested last June that emergency funds be used for the cleanup. Typical Superfund cleanup takes longer; now designated as a time-critical action, funding has been approved.

Ruesch said he believed the decision was made based on that request as well as the site’s condition.

“With the deterioration of that building since 2012, it’s really very unstable,” he said.

He recalled several of the former mill’s neighbors approaching him at a community meeting last spring.

“They lived across the street and across the river from this place” Ruesch said. “You could just tell they were upset and very concerned about the people who were trespassing on the property. The asbestos was a threat to the kids; the place is a magnet for people wanting to get in there.

“They knew people were being exposed. They saw the graffiti; they could see people in there at night. So, I heard that loud and clear.

“I’m looking forward to going door-to-door to inform people of the upcoming work and being able to tell them we heard them and we’re doing something about it.”



Ruesch said the community can expect approximately a dozen workers on the cleanup and demolition crew. Trucks and heavy equipment, including a crane with a claw attachment will be used.

“That claw will pick apart the building to minimize dust being kicked up,” he said.

Ruesch said a community meeting will soon be scheduled at Otsego city hall.

“We’ll explain exactly what we are going to do, how we’re going to have the trucks come in and go out. We’ll have pictures of how the work will take place,” he said, including how the trucks hauling material off-site will be lined with plastic.

As with last year’s work along the Kalamazoo River, he said air monitors at the perimeter of the property will provide real-time updates of how much dust the equipment is kicking up, to prevent asbestos from spreading from the cleanup but also to maintain air quality.

“I’ll explain how we’ll be testing to make sure the air is safe,” he said.

He estimated the heavy equipment and work trailers would be moved on-site by late March. Signs will be posted on nearby roads to mark truck paths.

Crews will recycle as much of the metal in the building as possible; other materials generally will be hauled to a landfill.

“People will definitely hear the noise of the work,” Ruesch said. “They may hear or feel the percussive force from different parts of the building falling.

Work is slated only for the power house.

“There may be a building to the west and south that, by taking down powerhouse, we may have to do some limited demolition around it so as to not leave buildings there that are about to fall over,” he said.



Allegan County executive director of services Dan Wedge has previously said there are two types of asbestos that need to be cleaned up on the property. There is the intact asbestos on some boilers in one building as well as in the power house. Wedge estimated this made up 75 percent of the asbestos.

The rest is loose asbestos, scattered throughout the powerhouse and the basement of a secondary structure when the former owner of the property was stripping the buildings of valuable metal for salvage. The owner of that company, Anthony Davis with Cogswell Properties LLC, was convicted for purposely not properly cleaning up the asbestos.

Cogswell stopped paying the taxes on the property in 2007; the county gained possession in 2011, at which point the back taxes totaled nearly $250,000.

This would not be the EPA’s first foray into cleaning up the site. In 2011, a grant-funded survey of the property found approximately 200 drums and other containers of chemicals the EPA deemed hazardous and removed the following year.


Buyer beware

Allegan County has been trying to find a viable buyer for the mill property since it acquired it. A push last year found some interested companies but undetermined total cleanup costs made buyers hesitant. It has been previously estimated at approximately $2 million to $4 million.

A press release from Allegan County said, “The power house may be considered the most difficult building on the complex to remove due to its size, contents and inherent structural dangers. This action will aid in redevelopment opportunities.”

Otsego city manager Aaron Mitchell said this removed a major hurdle for development.

“I’ve always thought of this as the first domino,” Mitchell said. “I realize the other buildings are a substantial concern as well; this isn’t the be-all-end-all.

“I think once it comes down, though, the rest will be easier to get down incrementally. It’s the first one that’s always the hardest to get going.”

He believes this will drive down any developer’s initial investment by roughly $1 million. As he understands it, potential developers are likely to ask for tax incentives to help recoup cleanup and demolition costs. In whatever form that takes—likely tax incremental financing—reducing the cleanup costs means less burden on local taxpayers from that kind of incentive.

Mitchell thanked the EPA for acting after being told about the trespassers.

“Plus, I really think the community will respond well to finally seeing some action on the site,” he said.

Ruesch said the project would be as quick, safe and unobtrusive as possible.

“I hope this is beginning of the end of the old complex but also the beginning of a new start for the whole property,” he said.

Contact Ryan Lewis at or (269) 673-5534.


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