A year after fire, rebuilding continues at Miller Chemical & Fertilizer

David O'Connor//July 8, 2016

A year after fire, rebuilding continues at Miller Chemical & Fertilizer

David O'Connor//July 8, 2016

The site of a heavy fire last year that damaged its manufacturing and warehouse facility now holds a new, tan-colored concrete building.

And to Charles Svec, Miller Chemical’s president, the new building symobilizes a “a remarkable recovery” for the specialty agricultural products manufacturing company.

The company has fulfilled a vow Svec made in June 2015, that Miller Chemical would be back open for business at the location in a year — not two to five years, as an insurance official predicted.

In a symbolic step on the first anniversary of the fire, workers at Miller repackaged one liquid product and one dry product at the new facility. And the company is continuing to install new equipment and new production lines in stages, a process the company expects to be completed this September.

Fire a total loss

Amy Spangler

It was early in the morning of June 8, 2015, that the fire tore through and destroyed the former building, just off Route 94 near Hanover. The company property straddles the Adams/York County line.

Svec, who declined to give the company’s revenue or number of employees, said the fire was believed to have been caused by some sort of wiring malfunction in the western end of the plant, close to the roof.

The fire’s damage reached beyond the company’s borders. Fumes emitted from the day of the fire forced nearby residents inside for hours. The water from firefighting efforts and subsequent rainstorms overflowed into nearby waterways, contributing to the death of thousands of fish and forcing area municipalities to pull water from other resources.

“We’ve become a lot more expert in many things that we probably never wanted to know about, like rebuilding, environmental and insurance issues and the like,” Svec said.

The fire’s damage, estimated at $20 million, destroyed the old 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and warehouse in a field behind the company’s Radio Road headquarters.

The 3.8 million gallons of water pumped from the 26 fire companies at the fire then caused a runoff of fertilizer nutrients and micronutrients. The runoff spilled into nearby Conewago Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River. Runoff from the plant was linked to the dead fish, although not from chemicals in the water, but from a reduction of concentration of oxygen, according to a Miller news release at the time.

Mixed reviews

John Repetz, community relations coordinator with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said last month that Miller “has responded to all of the department’s requests and has done what it has been asked to do.”

And Kimberly Frank, Hazmat coordinator for Adams County, added that “Miller Chemical is currently in line with everything they need to do for me. They’ve been very helpful.”

But Timothy Seitz, a member of Hanover’s planning commission, isn’t convinced that having the plant nearby is a good thing.

“In general, anyone planning any kind of a community wouldn’t place a chemical and fertilizer plant so close to everything,” he said.

“I don’t really hear very many concerns from others. People seem to be saying, ‘It is what it is,’” Seitz added.

Outreach continues

Svec, who’s 74 and has worked for Miller Chemical for 52 years, emphasized that the company over the last year has painstakingly worked to rebuild not just the facility but also its relationships with neighboring businesses and neighbors: “We’ve felt that we’ve been a good neighbor in the Hanover-area community for all of these years, and I think the community responded in kind … they’ve felt we were doing everything we needed to do.”

“We didn’t fight anything … the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) came in, DEP came in and made recommendations, and we followed their recommendations, and it has been a good joint effort.”

Fire sprinklers weren’t required in the 1950s when the original facility was built.

The new facility, estimated to cost $6 million, has its required sprinklers. Miller also took extra steps as it rebuilt, such as filing a land-redevelopment plan with officials in Conewago Township and Adams County, Miller’s mailing address is Hanover, York County, but 10 acres of the company’s 13-plus-acre site is in Adams County.

When the rebuilt facility is complete, Svec anticipates bringing in groups from the community to see things for themselves.

Miller kept its business going over the past year, going to 15 outside contractor manufacturers across the eastern U.S., who formulated products and sent them back to Miller, which also in the last year rented space at a vacant Doubleday book facility in Hanover.

The company ships all over the U.S. and to 90 countries, with most of its international containers shipping out of Baltimore, and because of its use of outside firms, its logistics and transportation costs over the past year were substantially higher than they would have been if they had continued to produce and ship from their Hanover facility, Svec said.

Miller’s sales were down about 5 percent for 2015, Svec said. But, he added, “We were still profitable, just, obviously, not as profitable with all of the logistics of handling and shipping,” Svec said.

The company had to lay off seven people. When it started the hiring process for the new facility, most of the laid-off employees applied, and five of those with the skill set needed for the new facility were hired again, Svec said.