A Swiss conglomerate has taken over a chemical cleanup near the Cuyahoga River

Image of a large tarp and work crews in a grassy field under gray skies along a fall treeline
The RB&W site at 800 Mogadore Road was heavily contaminated with oil and manufacturing waste during the mid-20th century. Crews working for the new owner, ABB, are completing cleanup work alongside the EPA and the City of Kent. Wendy DiAlesandro/The Portager

If you’ve driven past the old RB&W site on Mogadore Road in Kent, you may have noticed heavy machinery and curious installations.

It’s all part of an environmental cleanup effort meant to remediate years of petroleum leakage, some of which leached into the Cuyahoga River. The property at 800 Mogadore Road is now owned by ABB, a Swiss multinational corporation that is working with the EPA to clean up the site.

“The river has been impacted by historical practices that are no longer in use, dating back to the 1950s and before that. Industrial practices were very different then than now. We’ve learned a lot in the last few decades,” said ABB Environmental Manager Melody Christopher. “What we believe happened is that oily sediments were transported via a drainage ditch from 800 Mogadore Road to the river, and then deposited in the area of slow water.”

The old RB&W plant, an industrial manufacturer, was razed in 2009, shortly after Thomas & Betts Corp. of Memphis obtained it. In 2011 Kent City Council voted to buy the site from Thomas & Betts for a single legal dollar, but the deal went south when the city couldn’t get answers from RB&W and its cleanup consultants about questions it had. The city ultimately declined a state grant to remediate the property and canceled the deal. 

Then ABB bought Thomas & Betts in 2012, taking on the massive cleanup effort at 800 Mogadore Road as part of the deal.

The oily waste that RB&W and its predecessor, Lamson & Sessions, discharged settled into the river bottom, but occasionally rose up, creating the telltale oily sheen. 

Before work could begin, four species of mussels, some of which were endangered, had to be hand-relocated upstream. Work also had to be timed so as not to disturb Indiana bats that nest in the trees along the riverbank.

J.F. Brennan, a Wisconsin firm that specializes in environmental dredging, is working in the river to remove petroleum-impacted sediment. Slower-moving water along the river’s south side naturally allowed the sediment to accumulate, Christopher said.

“We are about halfway through the dredging. We anticipate that this project will continue with sediment removal through November, and then removing all the equipment that we brought in, finishing up in December,” Christopher said.

Working from floating platforms at various points along the river, dive teams are vacuuming up the sediment and cycling the water through a purifier before pumping it back into the Cuyahoga. 

Those raised structures at the north end of the property? That’s where ABB is separating petroleum-impacted sediment from the water.

“We’ll treat the water and discharge it back to the river where it belongs. The sediment will be retained, sampled and disposed of legally in a state-licensed facility,” Christopher said.

After all the sediment removed from the river is appropriately disposed off-site at a state-licensed waste facility, the processing station will be dismantled and the site will be regraded and landscaped, said Christopher Shigas, ABB’s USA Head of Electrification Communications.

The entire game plan was to clean up the river while minimizing impact to people who fish along the river or kayak in it, Christopher said.

To complicate matters, ABB does not own the property along the riverbank. The City of Kent owns most of it, so, capitalizing on what Christopher called “a good relationship with the city,” ABB installed measures on city property “to ensure we don’t have continued leaching and we are continuing to work on our property to remove as much oil as we can.”

Long-term, “there will likely be some monitoring of the sediments for sheen, but the state actually has not assigned a monitoring program to us at this time,” she said. “I can tell you that the Cuyahoga in general is a long-term clean-up project for the state. They will routinely assess the health of the river, and I would assume that includes this section.”

ABB has taken steps to ensure that contamination is not migrating from the land to the river, she said. Contaminants are not migrating now, Christopher said.

HzW Environmental Consulting President Matt Knecht told the Kent Patch in 2011 that the 1.8 acres on the property’s south end might eventually be used for a park, but doubted that the rest of the property could ever be developed. HzW is working with J.F. Brennan, ensuring that the cleanup of the land and water proceed apace.

However, over a decade after Knecht’s forecast, Christopher told The Portager that no development is planned for any part of the property.

The Mogadore Road site has been an environmental disaster for decades, according to reporter Matt Fredmonsky, writing for Kent Patch in 2011.

Lamson & Sessions, RB&W’s predecessor, manufactured nuts and fasteners there during the last half of the 20th century.

The ground in those days was so saturated with manufacturing oil that it seeped out of the ground and drained to a low point on the south end of the property, ending up in two lagoons built between 1957 and 1963 to manage the plant’s oil and chemical waste.

Company employees filtered the oil between the lagoons and pumped some of it back into the factory, where it was burned in a boiler to heat the facility, Fredmonsky wrote.

“There is a slurry wall in place next to the former lagoon,” Christopher told The Portager. “That slurry wall continues to function. It did have a sanitary sewer line that runs through it that is owned and operated by the city, which is a challenge.” 

ABB worked with the Ohio EPA, and about a year ago successfully injected a reagent to bind contaminants and help them break down naturally.

“We continue to monitor the groundwater, and the recent groundwater shows increasingly good groundwater quality, so we’ve made real improvements in that area,” Christopher said.

Christopher said all tests indicate that the river is now in good health even as it absorbs stormwater runoff and water from roads, other industries, and Kent’s water treatment facility.

“It’s a very complicated ecosystem,” she said.

It’s an expensive project even for a global firm. Christopher attached a $2.5 million price tag, and said ABB is committed to seeing it through to be good corporate citizens.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the City of Kent did not take ownership of the property because it did not receive a state grant. In fact, the city did receive the grant but declined it because city administrators had unanswered questions about the property. The article has been updated to reflect this.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.