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Pillsbury Mills Site Owners Due In Court Next Week

Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois
The community group Move Pillsbury Forward hosted a perimeter walk of the abandoned plant.

The owners of the Pillsbury Mills site will have another day in court. The Illinois attorney general’s office claims the owners have not properly secured the site against trespassers, despite a court order to do so.

That’s according to a petition filed in Sangamon County Circuit Court in Springfield last month. A hearing is set for Thursday, December 19.

The filing asks the court to order the defendants to “secure the Facility by a date certain, actively inspect the Facility’s perimeter on a weekly basis, and timely submit proof of the inspections.” If they do not comply, the Attorney General’s office requests the court fine them $500 a day or hold them in jail.

The filing names Joseph Chernis III, Joseph Chernis IV, and Keith Crain, as well as their associated businesses P. Mills LLC and Midwest Demolition & Scrap, Inc.

The Chernises, a father and son, did not respond to phone calls or emails requesting comment. An attorney representing Crain declined to discuss the case.

The abandoned plant has been an eyesore and hazard to the neighborhood. In October, a dog was spotted high up on a silo; a couple days later, the dog was found dead, apparently from ingesting rat poison. The incident has led to renewed interest in cleanup and development.

The upcoming hearing is the latest development in a case that began in 2015, when then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued the owners for improperly removing asbestos. After months in court, the federal Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and completed a $2 million cleanup in 2017.

In a separate but related federal case, the younger Chernis pleaded guilty to the illegal removal of asbestos and was sentenced to three years in federal prison. Court documents claim asbestos-laden materials were kept in open storage containers. He was released in July, according to The State Journal-Register.

Securing the Facility

In early November, Steve Termine of the Springfield Police Department found several spots where trespassers could get onto the property, according to the state’s filling. Chris Richmond, the former fire marshal for Springfield and head of the Move Pillsbury Forward group, submitted an affidavit that he also saw similar deficiencies.

The attorney general’s office then notified the owners by email, giving them a deadline of November 18 to secure the perimeter. Co-owner Crain sent an inspection report that showed repairs to part of the fence and a cinder block covering a hole near the east side of the facility, according to the state’s filing.

Meanwhile, the younger Chernis wrote an email to the attorney general’s office on November 13, saying he did not plan to comply with the request: “What you want me to do is a complete waste of time and money. By not allowing access to complete the demolition and clear the site, your office is hindering the completion of this ongoing headache.”

In response to that email, an assistant attorney general pointed out the owners are under court order to keep the facility secure, and that it was the court that denied their previous request to resume demolition activities.

Court records show the owners have made multiple requests, which the state called “inadequate” in part because they did not communicate with the U.S. EPA about potential revenue from scrapping. The agency has a more than $2 million lien on the property for its 2017 cleanup.

The state also argued the proposal did not outline what safety procedures the owners would undertake.

Beyond what the EPA is trying to collect, the owners are years behind in real estate taxes.

A community group, Move Pillsbury Forward, has suggested the city of Springfield take on the property, but city officials have so far rejected the idea.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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