The small town of Sweet Home, Oregon, was struggling after the lumber industry imploded in the late 1990s. But this town of 9,000 still had its health, which many say is its most valuable resource alongside scenic vistas and a river which still runs clear for trout fisherman, hikers, and canoe and kayak enthusiasts.
That is, until Eugene, Oregon developer and businessman Dan Desler came looking for new territory in which to expand. His stated intention was new jobs, which would be formed around an environmentally-friendly residential and commercial complex to be built on the banks of the South Santiam River.
Desler said it would be a paradigm for development in the western United States. More recently, it’s become an ecological nightmare of trash dumping, asbestos contamination, charity-status violations, angry creditors and equally angry townspeople that it’s surprising Desler has escaped physical violence.
To understand the scope of the outrage, go back to 2004, when Desler got approval from the Sweet Home town council to proceed with his proposed Santiam Commons development, which was to be built on foundation property.
The foundation, of which Desler is the sole employee, is called the nonprofit Western States Land Reliance Trust, or WSLRT, and was formed in 2002 with Portland-based Oregon Health Care Foundation (OHCF) as its sole beneficiary.
Western States controls about 400 acres of land, donated by Oregon-based Willamette Industries Inc. and gravel company Morse Bros. The site includes a former, burned-out mill site and old gravel pits.
As soon as Desler acquired the land through the trust, he proceeded to dump industrial waste from former Weyerhaeuser plants in Springfield and Albany. There are reportedly about 12,000 dump trucks worth of shredded waste plastic, cardboard pulp and other refuse on the property, and Desler (via his foundation) is the only one to profit. Trust beneficiary OHCF Oregon Health Care Foundation has seen only $1,836, out of a total of $19,000 in total donations. Desler’s eyesore has reduced nearby property values to near zero.
Worse than the trash, though, are the asbestos-laden buildings that comprise the old mill, which Desler began to tear down in 2007, in hopes of recycling wood and fiber scraps as fuel through his Western Renewable Resources company.
The demolition went on for half a year, and then workers discovered a layer of material that proved to be asbestos, in spite of a report from Willamette predating their donation which states the property is free of asbestos.
Once asbestos was confirmed, Sweet Home’s city council stopped the demolition and called the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, which subsequently referred the matter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA.
The EPA is now in the initial stages of an investigation, and is, according to Dan Heister of the EPA’s Emergency Response Unit in Portland, considering using its Superfund program to remediate the site. The bill for the cost of said cleanup will, by law, go to Desler and his foundation.
Townspeople like LeeRoy Rice say they know better. According to Rice, the government will take over cleanup and pass the cost along to taxpayers. Rice is probably correct, in that the Superfund program has been underfunded and underperforming since the turn of the century, or about 1999.
Desler’s foundation has assets of $6 million in the property, and a total income since inception of about $600,000. Of that, almost $36,000 went to Desler for expenses, and $195,000 in IOU’s for operating the foundation without pay. The foundation’s debts are about $11 million, of which Desler contributed about $6 million and irate creditors another $5 million.
While the EPA dithers, and Desler evades, residents near the property continue to be exposed to fragmented asbestos exposed when demolition was underway. The upside of the case is that Desler was arrested on May 12 and is being held on $100,000 bail pending trial for unlawful air pollution, reckless endangerment and supplying false information to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Suorces: The Register-Guard, The Center for Public Integrity, OregonLive.com