A hazardous materials contractor for the state Department of Environmental Protection on Tuesday began work to clear chemicals various acids, hydrogen peroxide and other materials from a former industrial soap factory in Lansford, now owned by the Panther Valley School District.

The company, AECOM of Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, "will be placing the drums in containers, sampling and then staging the drums for re-use or removal. This will take several weeks," said DEP spokesman Mark Carmon.

The massive old red brick building, at 401 W. Bertsch St., sits next to the school district's football field. The school district bought the building for $800 at a Carbon County tax sale in June, but as of yet has not announced what it intends to do with it.

However, a Nov. 8 letter to Lansford Borough from the school district Superintendent Rosemary Porembo states that, after all of the chemicals have been removed from the building and any lead paint/asbestos is addressed, school officials "will meet to discuss the inventory of the remaining contents and demolition of the building according to the DEP guidelines."

The building is in bad shape, with a good portion of its roof missing. The school district has been concerned about the building's deterioration, citing worries about the safety of people attending events at the stadium.

Lansford Borough had repeatedly brought the building's former owner, Bennett Verta, to court over the condition of the building, but he lacked the money to repair it or pay the taxes owed. Verta, had planned to continue his Everbrite Industries soap manufacturing business there until financial difficulties forced him to stop. He said he wants the materials that were left in there, and said the school district "locked him out" and prevented him from retrieving them.

The school district was "aware that chemicals were stored in this building because it was a manufacturer of soap products," Porembo said. "Not until further investigation and preparing an inventory list did the extent become better known." The school board on Aug. 12 voted to keep whatever items were left in the building. They included not only Verta's materials, but also a pool table, pool table accessories, and weight lifting equipment stored in the building by former Panther Valley student Nino Logan, who at the time was serving in Iraq.

Verta said the inventory includes his business records, raw chemicals, "orange peel oil, coconut oil soaps, soy bean oil, lecithin, oleic acid (as found in butter) tree sap esters, some ethanol and isopropanol, synthetic detergent concentrates, a drum of tetrasodium EDTA (a water hardness remover), two partial drums of two different glycol ether wetting agents, plus various soap builders in powdered form such as soda ash, baking soda, borax, phosphate powder, powdered talc, and citric acid. Also a drum or partial drum of hydrofluoric acid."

He said the "total real manufacturing inventory should be less than 30 drums of full or partial contents. Also a host of empty used plastic drums, plus garage chem.(icals) like antifreeze, greases and used motor oil. Beyond that, there's a big collection of small bottles-chem(ical) surfactant samples from my lab shelves currently stacked and stored in open head drums. There's also an assorted quantity of finished soap products there. Product inventory ranges from drum quantities to pail and bottle packaging. Finished products range from truck soaps and concrete form lubricants to dish detergents and floor cleaners."

Verta says the school district locked him out of the building, "seized all possessions inside without notice, and specifically without eviction notice." He said he was actively engaged in emptying the building when the locks were changed. He said his attorney has sent letters to school district solicitor Robert T. Yurchak stating Verta's intent to remove the materials, but that he has not gotten a response.

Verta also said the school district told DEP the materials had been abandoned, but that he disputed that, saying he wants them in order to rebuild his business elsewhere. Verta said he contacted DEP, but was told the agency intends to more forward with the school district's removal plan.

"I want the chemicals and contents," he said. "I'm willing to remove it all, safely retain it, hope to use it, and in so doing I'd save everyone a lot of trouble and expense. Instead, a lot of public tax dollars will be spent upon PVSD's insistence of directionality."

Porembo said Panther Valley bought the building from the county, not from Verta, and that it received the deed to the building on June 21. In July, it began determining what was in the building, making an inventory and determining how to handle it.

In August, the school board agreed to follow DEP's guidance. The school district is working with DEP because it wants to make sure the materials are handled properly. "We are doing everything in a responsible manner. We have to be responsible to all of the citizens of our community," she said. DEP, Porembo said, is helping the school district find grant money to offset the cost of removing the materials. The cost has yet to be determined.

Porembo said she understands Verta's frustration, but the school district is handling the matter properly.

"I understand he's the owner of a company and had financial difficulties," she said. But, she said, he had sufficient time to remove the materials before the building was surrendered to the county for tax sale.

"Once we received the deed, it was the opinion of our solicitor that the building and its contents were school district property, so any liability would be on us," Porembo said.

In addition to DEP's expertise, the district also wanted to involve the agency in order to be sure that everything would be documented for legal reasons.

After the cleanup is finished, DEP and its contractor will give the school district a detailed report and certification of the contents, how they were packaged for removal and exactly where they were taken and how they were disposed of, she said.

During the next few weeks or so, AECOM will sample, pack and label all chemicals. The next phase will be to bid out contracting work to take the chemicals to a certified location for disposal. This phase should be completed by the end of January, 2011.