Abound Solar cleanup could cost $3.7 million

LONGMONT — Cleanup of the former production facility contaminated and abandoned by bankrupt Abound Solar Inc. is estimated to cost as much as $3.7 million, according to documents obtained by the Business Report.

As lawyers, regulators, bankruptcy officials and the landlord spar over the case, the building lies in disrepair, too contaminated to lease.

The building, at 9586 E. Interstate 25 Frontage Road, southeast of Longmont, was occupied by Abound Solar from 2008 through 2012 and has remained unoccupied since the company failed.

In the interim, local government officials and the building’s owner have attempted to compel Abound Solar’s bankruptcy trustee, Wilmington, Delaware-based Joeffrey Burtch, to clean the building, contaminated with the metal cadmium. The Business Report obtained documents about the building from a Colorado Open Records Act request to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Abound Solar declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy in July 2012, leading to the layoffs of 125 people, on top of the 280 it had laid off earlier in the year, and the closure of its facilities in Larimer and Weld counties. The company had borrowed almost $70 million on a $400 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. Taxpayers are expected to lose $40 million to $60 million as a result of its bankruptcy.

The solar panel manufacturer had a history of defective products and equipment problems, and repeatedly missed revenue and production goals. It blamed its collapse on competition from the Chinese.

Owned by 9586 LLC, formed by Bill Reynolds of Boulder-based W.W. Reynolds Cos., the building is contaminated with cadmium, which can cause cancer. Abound Solar’s panels, coated with cadmium-tellurium thin film, were at first considered an important addition to the solar market because they were supposed to produce electricity much more efficiently than the cheaper crystalline silicone panels manufactured by the Chinese.

But as Abound was gearing up for commercial production, the Chinese panels flooded the market, making it increasingly difficult for Abound to sell its product.

The Longmont building represents one more contaminated site left by Abound Solar in the wake of its bankruptcy. For months after its failure, 2,000 pallets of solar panels “deemed unsellable” languished in a Denver warehouse. The fate of these panels remains unclear. The bankruptcy trustee has declined to comment on their whereabouts. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said it doesn’t believe the panels remain at the warehouse but doesn’t know what’s become of them.

Approximately 11,000 of Abound Solar’s panels went to Tempe, Arizona-based First Solar Inc., which reached an agreement with the bankruptcy trustee to recycle glass panels at First Solar’s recycling facility in Perrysburg, Ohio, and to use Abound’s leftover processed cadmium and tellurium for its own solar panels.

“We believe the solar industry as a whole should start implementing responsible disposal and recycling practices by learning from the sustainability practices adopted by more mature industries, enabling solar to deliver on its promise as a clean and sustainable renewable energy,” spokesman Steve Krum said in an email to the Business Report earlier this year. “Every player in this relatively young industry has a responsibility to bring forward solutions for end-of-life management.”

In August, 9586 LLC sued Abound Solar’s insurer, Chubb Group of Insurance Cos., alleging that the company wrongly denied a claim to pay cleanup costs.

“Sampling and analysis results and correspondence show that hazardous waste exists at the property in concentrations that place humans at imminent and significant health risk,” says a July 18 letter from Jeffrey Winger of W.W. Reynolds to bankruptcy trustee representatives and federal officials.

Bill Reynolds, owner of W.W. Reynolds, declined to comment, and a Chubb spokesman said the company does not comment on individual claim matters.

Keith Nichols, former director of facilities for Abound Solar, and Adam Singer, a representative of Burtch, did not return phone messages seeking comment.

The building could cost from $840,000 to $2 million in “investigation and remediation costs,” according to an April 9 report from Chemistry & Industrial Hygiene Inc. of Wheat Ridge. “Potential additional costs” could push the cleanup tab to nearly $3.7 million.

The languishing building has irked Weld County officials such as Commissioner Sean Conway. Elected officials have urged regulators to initiate a cleanup, he said, but the county has had trouble figuring out whether there are plans to clean the building and when that might take place.

“Weld County commissioners are interested in seeing the cleanup,” Conway said. “We’re having a hard time getting answers.”

The state health and environment department, meanwhile, is not responsible for the cleanup because it doesn’t fall under the agency’s regulatory authority. The state would step in only after a cleanup is launched. At that point, the public health department would have authority over any contaminated material generated during the cleanup.

The state considered Abound Solar a “large quantity generator” of hazardous waste because of the broken glass and rinse water used during solar panel manufacturing.

State inspectors have conducted several inspections of the facility, including on Nov. 28, 2012, when inspectors found 30 55-gallon drums, a 1,500-gallon tank and a 1,000-gallon tank containing cadmium-contaminated water as well as cadmium-tainted glass and wipes. About 90 pallets of solar panels contained “unknown hazardous waste,” according to their report.

Panels have since been removed from the facility, along with containers filled with hazardous waste, said Joe Schieffelin, solid and hazardous waste manager for the health and environment department. Despite those efforts, the building remains contaminated.

“We’re in a holding pattern saying, ‘You guys figure out what you’re going to do, and figure out how clean you want to make it,’ ” he said. “ ‘Whatever waste you generate in that process, we’ll help you figure out what to do with it.’ ”

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