Jeannette officials prepare to close beleaguered hemp-drying plant
An order shuttering a Jeannette hemp-drying facility is imminent while employees said they still have not been paid.
City solicitor Tim Witt said Tuesday afternoon that a cease and desist order could be issued soon by the code enforcement officer as Patriot Shield Security has not met requirements to obtain an occupancy permit for the Thomas Avenue warehouse.
“They made some improvements and still weren’t 100% in compliance,” Fire Chief Bill Frye said.
Meanwhile, former employees have been protesting the lack of pay outside the warehouse every day since Friday, said Rose Thomas, a former shift supervisor who lives in Jeannette.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I have no income.”
The Jeannette warehouse has been dogged by controversy since it started operating in September.
City officials said the operation started without an occupancy permit and neighbors complained about a pot-like odor. Patriot Shield has been issued two notices of violation for the odor by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
A cease and desist order issued Oct. 2 by the city was rescinded to give the company time to come into compliance. But that changed when Patriot Shield failed to make enough improvements by the Nov. 2 deadline to get the occupancy permit.
“They snuck in here … no one knew about it,” said Mayor Curtis Antoniak, who wants to see the facility closed. The warehouse employs a little more than 200 people.
The city has no control over the workers not being paid. Employees indicated they’ve filed labor-related complaints.
“For them people to go there and work and not get paid, that’s a sin,” Antoniak said.
Patriot Shield State Director of Pennsylvania Andrew Englund said via email that the company has “made quite a bit of headway and expects to kick out payroll in the next few days.”
It’s unclear what regulations — if any — exist on the storage and manufacture of hemp products. The U.S. Farm Bill, which last year legalized the crop, only regulates growers, according to Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Shannon Powers. The department inspects farmers that grow hemp, but is not responsible for facilities that store and process it.
Eight people who are workers and their supporters attended Jeannette council’s agenda-setting session Tuesday to seek answers about the facility’s status. They urged officials to shut the operation down.
State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said she thought Jeannette would be doing the right thing in issuing a cease and desist order.
“They’re skirting the laws and they should just shut them down,” she said.
Employees started pushing back Friday after weeks without being paid. Company officials blamed that on an inability to collect payments from some of its farmer clients.
Englund said Friday that the company was close to achieving financial stability and that it had “no intention of leaving anybody out in the cold.”
Patriot Shield Security started last year in Colorado, providing transportation and security for hemp and marijuana businesses. Flyers posted outside the warehouse advertise jobs starting at $13 an hour.
Workers process thousands of pounds of hemp, turning it into a smokeable product that is like marijuana but without the high. Residents who live near the warehouse have complained of a strong marijuana smell.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has issued two notices of odor violations — on Oct. 7 and Nov. 1.