Scores of large bins containing scorched animal bones and parts still fill the burned-out, pitch-dark second and third floors of TreatCo’s central building at 21st and Broadway.
But soon crews will be hauling that away, blasting the char off the concrete surfaces and getting the space ready to restart production, plant manager Ken Thomas said last week. He said he expects to have the controversial plant back in operation by August.
TreatCo, which makes pet treats, was closed in June by a fire so ferocious that firefighters simply let it burn itself out. The fire, fed by the fat in heaps of animal parts, cardboard packaging and the plastic insulation around dehydrating ovens, burned and smoldered for weeks.
Several floors in the main building, an attached building on the south side of the plant and some of the equipment were damaged. The plant has no gas, electricity or windows. Thomas has installed steel pipes to help support the ceiling in one section.
But he remains optimistic.
Most of the 700,000-square-foot former Cudahy/Ohse slaughter plant was only lightly touched by the fire, and the areas where TreatCo employees stored and processed the animal parts is built so solidly that it wasn’t seriously damaged.
Once they get the gas turned on and the electricity restored, they can bring in forklifts and power washers, he said. Some concrete surfaces will have to be chipped out and resurfaced. They must rebuild the giant dehydrating ovens.
“What’s the old saying, ‘How do you walk across the country? You start with a couple of steps,’ ” said Thomas.
The company had 45 to 50 workers before the fire. It produced dog biscuits, cookies, jerky treats and animal body parts like bones and pig ears for pets. It processed more than 2 million pounds of product a month from slaughterhouses.
It’s now down to five employees. Thomas hopes to have 10 or 12 doing repair work by spring and 25 when production returns in August.
He said his old customers are eager for the company to start back up.
He wouldn’t say how much the company collected from insurance, but said that the building was underinsured. The company will also have to use savings and the plant’s cash flow to pay for the repairs, Thomas said.
“I’ve had friends tell me that I should just sit back and drink mai tais,” he said. “But that’s not going to happen. We’ll be here.”
Controversy at plant
TreatCo has fought with federal, state and local officials virtually since it arrived from Texas in 1996.
Thomas pugnaciously defends his actions, weaving narratives of events in which the officials are unreasonable or arrogant.
In the most recent incident, he will have a hearing in February on criminal charges of assault, battery, resisting arrest and battery on a law enforcement officer stemming from the night of the fire.
Thomas said that Wichita firefighters wouldn’t listen when he told them a high-pressure gas line to the plant had to be turned off. When he moved to do it anyway, he was wrestled to the ground, he said.
Thomas said he filed a complaint against the police over the incident last Wednesday. Charges were filed by the city of Wichita on Friday, he said.
Several city officials said they had no comment on the incident. Capt. Stuart Bevis did say that, in general, firefighters are obligated to take control of a fire scene because they are responsible for everyone’s safety.
“That’s what they are trained for, they’re the professionals,” Bevis said.
In 2009, TreatCo was raided by the Environmental Protection Agency. This followed a history of violations and confrontations between government regulators and the company.
Among the concerns cited by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in 2007 was the disposal of material at the plant from a chemical company. The company has had citations, warning letters, consent agreements or orders relating to environmental violations in 1999 and from 2002 to 2006, according to news reports.
Thomas said the EPA never cited TreatCo following the raid and his understanding is that the agency is no longer investigating TreatCo for violations.
“If they’re going to get you, they throw you against the wall,” he said. “They don’t wait.”
The EPA didn’t return calls for comment.
TreatCo entered into a consent agreement with the city of Wichita in November 2008 in which it admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to pay $12,700 in fines to settle the city’s claims and agreed to comply with the city’s wastewater discharge permit.
In the consent order, according to news reports, the city contended TreatCo was receiving waste petroleum oil generated off site. It noted odors created at the plant and contended TreatCo failed to notify the city that it was taking in process waste from companies in Great Bend, Galena and Arkansas City and discharging that waste into the city sewer system.
TreatCo was also raided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service soon after it opened in Wichita in 1996. Six illegal Mexican immigrants were arrested. Owner Margie Thomas, Ken’s mother, said at the time that they were fooled by immigrants who used forged documents.
As he seeks to restart his business, Ken Thomas will have to go through an imposing gantlet of approvals.
TreatCo is wrestling with the plumbing board to get a permit that would allow Thomas to turn on the gas for the boilers, he said. Even more critical are questions surrounding whether the second and third floors of the plant’s central building are sound enough to use.
Thomas said he expects to have to fight for everything.
“You just smile and go on,” he said.