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KSMU Investigative: Nuisance Claim Reveals People Living Deep Within Heavy Manufacturing Zone

The city of Springfield is investigating complaints of explosions and air pollution at a Springfield recycling center.

An investigation of our own turned up some unexpected results regarding what options residents who live near the facility have--or don't have--when it comes to the right to peace and quiet.

KSMU's Jennifer Moore reports.

Springfield resident Thomas Clark started hearing explosions near his north Springfield home in February, but says they didn't get bad until April.

"Now we hear one about every day or every other day. They're large enough to shake the house. They've cracked interior walls and foundations in the neighborhood and even windows," he says.

The explosions are coming from a metal recycling plant down the street, Springfield Iron and Metal. Clark says he's been keeping track of the explosions--the day and time they occur.

Moore: "So this is your calendar..."

Clark: "The biggest one we've had occurred last night at 9:10."

Moore: "It occurred at 9:10 in the evening?"

Clark: "Yes, mm-hmm."

Moore: "Is it loud enough to wake someone up?"

Clark: "Oh, yes, definitely. It woke him up."

Clark's son: "It woke me up!"

Clark: "He came downstairs and said, 'Was that another explosion?' And I said, 'Yes, son, that was another explosion.'"

Clark shows me the cracks in the foundation of his home, which he believes were caused by the explosions.

Clark: "This is the first one that appeared. It started out as a hairline crack and got progressively worse with all the explosions."

Moore: "Right here?"

Clark: "Yeah, that's never been there for all the years we've been here..."

The explosions are just the beginning of Clark's complaints. He says the traffic of customers bringing in scrap metal often blocks the road and that he often finds mangled pieces of metal in his street.

He adds that his family is constantly breathing in smoke from the plant, and says when the plant's customers line up to drop off old car bodies, they're dumping gasoline and antifreeze in the street, creating an environmental hazard.

The metal recycling plant, Springfield Iron and Metal, began operations early this year. Before that, the property belonged to Southwest Regional Stockyards.

One of Springfield Iron and Metal's owners, Greg Westfall, says he's actually sympathetic to nearby residents and that he's trying to do his best to be a good neighbor while running a state-of-the-art recycling facility.

His company pays money to people who bring in scrap metal, including old car bodies.

He says the explosions occur when a car body is inserted into the huge metal grinder with its gas tank still full of gasoline.

Westfall says his company requires customers dropping off old car bodies to either remove the gas tanks or put a large hole in them so all the gasoline is drained out. But many of the customers dropping off the scrap metal don't follow those rules and leave the gas tank in.

"What happens is, we're doing 8 to 9 thousand car bodies a month, and these people will jerk the gas tank off then hide it behind the seat of the car, then squash it down with something, and they are at times hard to detect. You flip 'em over, and you don't see one, then you stick it in the shredder, and sometimes, lo and behold, every once in a while, you get one."

Westfall says since hearing that the explosions were disturbing nearby residents, his company has cracked down on customers who try to sneak by the rules. He also says his staff has gotten stricter on inspecting car bodies they take in.

"We've banned several customers actually, that are repeat offenders of it that we've caught. And we've got another machine in here to help tear the cars up and inspect the cars closer. And the people are trained a little bit better now. And we haven't had an explosion here in a while. That's not to say we won't occasionally have one, that's just the nature of what it is, but we're trying to make it to where we don't."

And as for the traffic, he says he sends his staff out to try to clear the street when it gets busy. He says he cared about recycling long before it was trendy to be "green" and that his company is pumping about 350,000 dollars a day back into the local economy.

"I've been a metal recycler my whole life. I was born into it. I love it, it's a benefit to everyone if you do it properly, and that's what we strive to do."

He then points out that his metal recycling company is located in a "Heavy Manufacturing Zone," which means the law actually allows his plant to make extra noise, traffic and other conditions that, although a nuisance to neighbors, are the nature of industrial plants like his.

He adds that many of the people who are complaining are actually not living in a residential zone, but rather reside in the borders of the heavy manufacturing zone, too.

Moore: So right now I'm pulling up the Springfield City Zoning map it is...and I'm going to type in Thomas Clark's address there on 1207 W. Locust St. Let's see what we get...("Click" of mouse)...And it looks like...sure enough, his home and all the homes on his block, pretty much, are deep inside a dark gray zone labeled "HM," or Heavy Manufacturing."

That means they are not entitled to the same rights--namely, peace and quiet--as someone who lives in a residential zone.

I went back to see if Thomas Clark was aware that his home was situated in a Heavy Manufacturing zone. He said nine years ago when he bought this house, he was told it was an industrial area, but believes most of his neighbors don't realize they're living in a heavy manufacturing zone.

Greg Westfall of Springfield Iron and Metal believes there is a solution to the problem of having homes so close to a plant like his, but it's not a simple one.

"If we're actually trying to solve that issue, these are pretty much your options: If you're gonna have a manufacturing zone, and I think most everyone agrees you have to have one, your options are to pretty much go down and eminent domain those people, or overpay them for their property just to raze and demolish it just to have a buffer zone," he said.

But the City of Springfield says it's not prepared to use imminent domain to solve this particular issue. Ralph Rongstad is Director of Planning, the department which oversees the Springfield City Zoning Ordinance. He says the city is trying to address all of the complaints--traffic, noise, and safety issues--through its various departments.

In addition, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources is looking into what can be done to catch customers who are dumping gasoline and chemicals into the street, which then flow into a nearby creek.

Rongstad says that the homes were likely there first, before the city created the heavy manufacturing zone.

We asked him how we got to this point--with people living inside a heavy manufacturing zone--especially since the Springfield Zoning Ordinance clearly specifies that an HM Zone is purely for industrial purposes and no one is supposed to actually reside in such a zone.

Rongstad: "Well, when we zone, we generally base it on a plan. So I think probably in the 50s, and I don't have all the background information, they looked at it and said these areas, because they're next to the railroad, are more suitable for industrial use. So we're gonna zone it industrial with the idea that it would convert to industrial over time."

Moore: "So, essentially they created this zone expecting or thinking or hoping that this area would become businesses but in essence it remained homes."

Rongstad: "Yes."

Springfield did a comprehensive rezoning in 1995. But this heavy manufacturing zone was left as it was, with homes in it.

Rongstad: "Well, we weren't sure what would happen in that area over time—it appeared it was an area in transition, that could become industrial or commercial rather than remaining residential."

Moore: "But that would mean the people would have to move."

Rongstad: "Right, at some point they would have to move. We weren't forcing them to move, they could remain there. But it didn't appear that zoning it residential made a lot of sense."

Rongstad says one possibility is for the city to re-zone the area, changing it to a residential zone.

"If there were a significant number of them that came and spoke to us about re-zoning the area, we could consider that. It would have to go through a committee and be approved by City Council," he said.

He adds, however, that simply changing the zone still wouldn't solve all of their problems: They would still be the same distance away from the noise and smoke which is bothering them now.

The Springfield City Zoning Ordinance stipulates that there should be a "buffer yard" between Heavy Manufacturing zones and Residential zones.

Rongstad says, however, that such buffer yards are only required if the land re-develops. Thus, he says, the buffer yard rule would not apply in this case, leaving residents like Thomas Clark and their families with few, if any options.

For KSMU News, I'm Jennifer Moore.