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Questions remain amid PermaGrain sale

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A Virginia flooring manufacturer plans to take over what remains of a Clearfield County competitor that closed last year while state and federal officials fought over the $40 million tab for cleaning radioactivity from its plant.

In the short term, that means 55 jobs. Those involved with the plant won't say what lies ahead.

A year ago, PermaGrain Inc. was the largest employer in the unsettled northeast corner of the county, with about 100 people turning out commercial flooring at its plant there.

Now, PermaGrain is closed and bankrupt. And three months after the company shut down, Gammapar Inc. is planning to buy its name and at least some of its assets and put people back to work.

"We're going to start out small," Barry Brubaker, Gammapar's chief executive officer, said yesterday from his Forest, Va., office.

What nobody's talking much about yet is whether Gammapar will build new quarters to resurrect the heart of PermaGrain's operation: a radioactive process, involving relatively benign cobalt-60, used to bond acrylics and wood into flooring designed for heavy traffic.

"That building will be built," state Rep. Camille "Bud" George, D-Clearfield, vowed yesterday.

Until it closed, PermaGrain did the work in a state-owned building used four decades ago by federal contractor Martin-Marietta Corp. But the state Department of Environmental Protection said Martin-Marietta left part of that building so tainted with strontium 90 that PermaGrain would have to move out to keep its workers out of harm's way during a cleanup.

Part of the cleanup expense was $8 million for replacement quarters, about 10 miles away, where PermaGrain could resume its radioactive bonding process.

Before it would pay any of the tab, the federal government went looking for successors to Martin-Marietta that might be held liable. State officials complained that would mean years of court fights before money changed hands. And PermaGrain folded -- wounded, in part, by lenders' qualms about its future, company President A.E. Witt said.

"Sometimes, it seems government doesn't care about jobs," said Ray Savel, president of Quehanna Industrial Development Corp., which covers that edge of Clearfield County.

For now, Gammapar will work in two other buildings, near the state's Quehanna Boot Camp, about five miles from the contaminated site. There, it will turn out flooring that doesn't require the radioactive bonding process, Brubaker said. But, pending the sale's final approval in bankruptcy court, he wouldn't speculate how much growth could follow.

"We're evaluating all options," he said.


Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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