Vito’s toxic venture: The story of New England Log Homes
Great Barrington — I once loved a man who lived in a log home in the far reaches of rural Colorado. It sat snug and content amid crooked miners’ cabins and western Victorian architecture, in a town where Butch Cassidy once fired off his six-shooter as he left my favorite saloon in a hurry, leaving a bullet hole in the wall.
Or so everyone said.
And I was a kid when my Uncle George retired, and built his big log home deep in the woods outside Nashville. I’ll never forget the chiggers. But I recall the magic of that house, the frontier sensibility in the way those logs were fitted together. I remember Uncle George’s pride when the house was finished, handmade quilts on the beds, his joy at giving directions to the house by terrain — an endearing Southern habit –– and his giggle at how hard it might be for us eccentric city folk to find the place and get up the rough road.
There’s something about a log home that strikes peace in the American heart. Log homes once meant hardship. Later, they meant tranquility, simplicity. The building concept is simple, especially with a kit of pre-cut logs; after all, we played with Lincoln Logs as children. Even if you’ve never handled a saw, you could build yourself a house — the glory of the idea fueled, in part, by an abundance of mouthwatering magazines like Log Home Living. In the 1970s and 80s, the log home dream was contagious.
Amid all this romance, it is hard to make the connection between what New England Log Homes Incorporated (NELHI) in a 1985 advertisement in Log Homes magazine, called “simple elegance, snug comfort, and carefree living,” with the carcinogenic mess it left behind on Bridge Street here in Great Barrington. The soil of the 8-acre site — presently frozen — is partway through a revolutionary, $2 million bioremediation process that, if successful, could forever change the way industrial pollution is managed.
It all began innocently enough. Vito M. Vizziello of Connecticut started the Hamden, Connecticut-based company in 1970 using the Bridge Street site – which included an 80,000 square foot building — as a sawmill. The following year he purchased the entire property for $85,000 from Great Barrington Manufacturing, a textiles company.
A 1990 edition of Log Homes Living said Vizziello located the sawmill in Great Barrington for its proximity to “a source of the plantation red pine that the company used for its signature hand-peeled log.” The company, said the article, also used fir and western red cedar in “six log styles” featuring “milled tongue and groove and fully precut mortise and tenon corners to improve the energy efficiency of its homes.”
A 1972 classified ad placed in The Berkshire Eagle by the company’s production manager, Charles A. Bouteiller, then of Great Barrington, tells that part of the story: “Red and white plantation pine. Highest prices paid.”
By 1973 the log home industry couldn’t keep up with demand. NELHI competitor Vermont Log Buildings of Hartland, Vermont, had a “six-month backlog,” according to an article in the Eagle that year. For NELHI in Great Barrington, the situation was “equally bullish.” It looked like there was enough business to go around, but Vermont Log Buildings sued NELHI for “stealing its production techniques.”
Altogether possible, according to The Eagle, since Vizziello was once “Berkshires franchise representative” for Vermont Log, and the NELHI logs looked almost identical to those made by Vermont Log. NELHI sued back in federal court, but it is unclear how the matter was settled.
Vizziello and Boutellier jointly filed a patent in 1974: “Feed and guide apparatus for angle end cutting.” In 1976 Vizziello developed an “Insulated Wall Log,” a log grooved then filled with foamed plastic, “having thermal insulating properties which are superior to those of solid wood.” Yet another sawmill equipment patent was filed by a group of workers at the company.
By 1977 the sawmill was so busy that it had become an unruly neighbor at its residential Bridge Street location. According to The Eagle, the Board of Selectman received a petition signed by 30 residents over a new second shift at the plant. There were truck lights, revving engines and foul-mouthed workers shouting in the wee hours between “7 p.m. and 7 a.m.” But Selectmen were reluctant to discipline the company over fears of discouraging business. “We spend fortunes trying to induce industry into the area,” said Selectman A. John Tuller.
NELHI soon had around 70 dealers nationwide, according to Log Homes Living. In 1983 the company built another sawmill and sales office outside Sacramento, California. At some point Cedardale Homes in Greensboro, North Carolina was acquired. NELHI had even started to ship overseas.
Business was rolling along and NELHI grew into a massive enterprise. According to the 1985 Annual edition of Log Homes, a guide to building, materials, and maintenance, the company had more than 100 dealers in the U.S. and Canada, and installed sawmills in Virginia and Missouri. There were 40 different house models from $6,800 to $56,000, and logs were “dip-treated in an EPA-sanctioned preservative” and certified to be free of beetles and borers by Terminix International. Customers were given a package that included limited “on-site assistance,” a warranty and technical blueprints.
Since thousands of pieces of precisely cut and processed logs were quickly assembled into a “kit” to be shipped to the customer’s home site, working at the Bridge Street sawmill could be brutal, especially if you were a “peeler.”
NELHI specialized in the “hand-peeled” log, which unlike its machine peeled counterpart gave logs a more authentic look. In 1986 plant manager Dennis Prutzman, a wood technology graduate from the University of Massachusetts, told the Albany Times Union: “In this job, lost time is lost money. It’s the only ‘incentive’ job in the plant. A peeler starts at $4.75 an hour. It takes a few weeks to build up your back and the stamina to keep going. After that a guy gets good, and he’s paid by the foot. A good man can peel 3,000 feet in eight hours, and that works out to around $11 an hour.”
In the 1980s Vizziello grew ill and asked a Connecticut banker and future state senator, Len Suzio, if he would take over the publicly held company. In 1987 both Suzio and Kevin Wise, a businessman who Suzio described as “a wealthy man,” acquired NELHI.
In 1989 the New York Times reported that NELHI was one of the three largest log home manufacturers, second only to the Hartland, Vermont company. The entire industry was selling $476 million in kits, according the Times, up from $440 million in 1987.
In the 1980s NELHI ran this advertisement in Log Homes: “Your NELHI advantage: Every NELHI log is fumigated with an EPA approved substance and certified to be free of wood boring insects prior to delivery to the homesite.”
That “substance” was a “solution of zinc and water solution…to retard mold,” Prutzman told the The Times Union.
It was zinc naphthenate, which is on the Pesticide Action Network’s list of “bad actors.” Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection documents show that at the moment Suzio and Wise took ownership, a walk through the NELHI site would have revealed multiple sections of corroded drums leaking both zinc naphthenate, copper-arsenic, and pentachlorophenol (PCP) into the soil, according to a 1989 Phase I environmental assessment Suzio said he initiated. A later telephone conversation log recorded by MassDEP shows Prutzman saying that, indeed, Suzio had commissioned the study “prior to his purchase of the company to find out what his responsibilities were if any.”
According to the study, zinc naphthenate was also considered hazardous waste due to its “low flash point,” meaning it could easily ignite. The PCP, or penta, as it was is known in the industry, was another story; it was NELHI’s earlier use of penta that started most of the trouble on Bridge Street. The assessment had also located buried drums of the chemical. Penta was used as a wood preservative and pesticide, and it would drip off freshly dipped logs and onto the ground. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, penta is “extremely toxic to humans…”
“We’ve never used pentachlorophenol,” Prutzman told The Times Union.
It was true; by 1987 the EPA had restricted penta for any use other than as a preservative for utility poles and railroad ties. According to the environmental study, NELHI had stopped using penta even earlier, in 1978, the year a study in The Lancet called it a carcinogen. The EPA says borate, a naturally occurring mineral, has “low toxicity,” and is effective at managing insects. As the company transitioned to a borate compound in 1990, the company used methylene bromide, an Orkin product, to fumigate the wood.
“The only reason you get insects is from moisture,” said the owner of a large log kit sales company in the Northeast. The owner, who declined to be identified, also said that a fumigation process only “gets rid of bugs, but won’t keep them out.” His company uses a stain that incorporates a citrus-based insect repellant.
So why would a company mess with nasty chemicals if they didn’t have to? “Money, time,” said the anonymous log home manufacturer, of what he thinks may have been NELHI’s practice: quickly peeling and processing green timber for shipment rather than keeping “stockpiles of dried timbers.” His company, he said, uses “air-dried timber” – some companies use “kiln-dried” — and that another key to avoiding moisture is to build the house “raised off the ground,” on “12 to 16 inches of foundation.”
A 1977 report from the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service Laboratory about “Protecting Log Cabins From Decay,” said the Department “has vigorously opposed the use of both pentachlorophenol for residential use and warned that this product should never be used inside . . . for any reason.”
Problem was, while penta created indoor exposure for homeowners, workers who handled penta didn’t fare so well, either.
A few lawsuits rolled in over the years. According to California personal injury attorney Richard Alexander, a cancer cluster in Northern California was linked by a physician to the Simpson Lumber Mill where workers applied penta to logs — through a product called Woodlife –sometimes spraying it on. Alexander successfully litigated wrongful death cases on behalf of some Simpson workers who died of rare forms of leukemia. He said he had to go after the manufacturers and sellers with a “defective product” claim, having taken fat samples from workers that revealed the chemical was present. “It sits in fatty tissue,” Alexander said.
There is at least one case of a homeowner suing a log home manufacturer over health problems linked to indoor exposure to penta-treated logs. Log homes treated before the ban may still be a threat to its inhabitants, especially children, who put their hands in their mouths. On Long Island, there is presently a class-action suit over penta-treated utility poles leaching into private property, and two Long Island, New York lawmakers have proposed a ban on continuing use of penta on utility poles. There have been mini battles across the country over newly treated poles, which are said to smell like intensified lighter fluid. One town on Long Island passed a law requiring warning labels on treated utility poles.
The housing recession of the late eighties eventually put NELHI out of business. “I came along at the wrong time,” Suzio said. And it was true; in 1990 Log Homes Living reported that from 1988 there was a “decline in unit sales due to the soft market for new housing in general.” By 1994 NELHI had gone out of business. In 1999 NELHI gave Community Development Corporation of Southern Berkshire a $1 option to take control over the 100 Bridge Street site, and the CDC began the task of cleaning it up for redevelopment. To support this, the town forgave NELHI $300,000 in back taxes, and TD Bank, a $1 million mortgage, only after working closely with the CDC for several years, said CDC Executive Director Timothy Geller. The property sat vacant, and a 2001 fire scorched or leveled the remaining structures.
The 8-acre brownfield along the banks of the Housatonic River became campaign fodder for Suzio’s opponent during Suzio’s run to keep his Connecticut state senate seat in 2012. “A search and destroy mission,” Suzio called it. Suzio, founder and president of GeoDataVision, a bank consulting company in Meriden, lost his second attempt at a Meriden/Cheshire senate seat by a slim margin last November 4.
“My opponent neglected to mention that [NELHI] was [polluting the site] 15 years before I got there,” he said, adding that the League of Conservation Voters gave him a “100-percent” rating during his first year in the senate, back in 2011. Suzio said that the Bridge Street site was polluted even before the company’s penta dipping days, when several other industries, including a 19th century textile factory and Trinity Steel, producers of propane tank cylinders, were on the site.
“We can’t undo what was done by people,” Suzio said of the industrial pollution problem that is “everywhere, not just in Great Barrington.”
But it appears the contamination was so bad at the site that Suzio couldn’t ignore it. He “initiated an evaluation,” he said. “If you had knowledge, then you had certain responsibilities. If you buy a property that’s contaminated then you are liable for it…I came after that history, but tried. Maybe we could have done something.” As it progressed, “the evaluation got very expensive, and the company wasn’t in a good financial situation then.”
MassDEP files show a torturous path through the environmental remediation maze, one that threatened to deal a deathblow to an already floundering company. In a 1991 letter to MassDEP, for instance, Suzio asked for a 60-day extension for soil testing until “a substantial contract for Israel” had commenced, “to provide us with the funds we need to conduct the testing.”
Suzio, who as senator “found and eliminated a hidden gas tax,” he said, and whose key platform position was to fight the early release of violent criminals, said he sees pollution cleanup as one place where the government has to get involved. “I don’t know what choice there is,” he said. He isn’t a fan, however, of hyper-involvement. “It becomes unsustainable when you rely [on government].”
He said he is excited about bioremediation at the site, and called Great Barrington “a wonderful, beautiful, idyllic place.”
The deals to redevelop the brownfield into 100 Bridge, a mixed-use development with a newly expanded Berkshire Cooperative Market, are in their advanced stages. Groundbreaking should begin summer of 2015, and by summer of 2016, we’ll be able to shop for organic food, and take a stroll along the banks of the restored Housatonic River, without risk to our health.
Neither Kevin Wise, Suzio’s business partner at NELHI, nor Dennis Prutzman, could be reached for comment.
And Vito Vizziello, said Suzio, died of leukemia, right around the time the company went bankrupt.