Ten years after fire, not much has changed for Queen City Barrel owner Eddie Paul

'The good thing, we are pretty tough'

CINCINNATI - Queen City Barrel is long gone from Lower Price Hill.

Eddie Paul may never leave.

Paul was the owner of the container-recycling facility that many residents in Lower Price Hill know as an environmental calamity. It was an odiferous place that used caustic baths and an incinerator to remove chemicals from 55-gallon drums, which were then repainted and put back to use as shipping containers. After decades of odor complaints and environmental enforcement activity, the company's largest warehouse building burned to ground in 2004.

This photo of the Queen City Barrel fire was taken around 8 p.m. Aug. 19, 2004, from the empty apparatus bay inside Cincinnati Fire Department's Engine 17. Photo by Joseph Bredestege

Eddie Paul sold his land to the city of Cincinnati in 2006. He sold his company to private equity investors in 2007. But he never left Lower Price Hill.

In fact, Paul still runs the barrel-cleaning empire his grandfather started in 1927 from a building at 820 State Ave., two blocks west of the fire site. He works for the new owners, as Ohio regional manager for Industrial Container Services, Inc.

“I remember the headline saying Queen City burns down or something,” Paul said in a recent interview. “It didn’t affect Queen City Barrel. Didn’t affect the plant. Didn’t affect any of the areas other than the warehouse we had.”

Paul, 65, had been the company’s leader for 14 years when smoke started pouring from Queen City Barrel's 400,000-square-foot warehouse building at 6:30 p.m., Aug. 19, 2004. To this day, Paul is convinced a tenant, a pallet recycling company, started the blaze by failing to tend to overheated equipment. Cincinnati Fire investigators said the intensity of the fire made it impossible to identify how it started, or even precisely where. Their final 2004 report estimated the fire caused $5 million in damages.

Industrial Container Services Building.

Such a cataclysm might have sent other companies into oblivion. But Paul adapted, using former Queen City Barrel facilities in Lower Price Hill and Northside to sort and ship barrels to processing facilities Columbus and Louisville. Depot Street remains the home of Cargo Clean Inc., a former Queen City Barrel subsidiary that cleans larger containers.

“The good thing about it is that we’re pretty tough,” said Paul. “We were in an environmentally sensitive businesses to begin with. We know how to work through a problem and get to the right end.”

‘The last guy to tell you what he’s done’

His friends say that persistence is a personality trait that defines Paul, whether he is looking after his 20-year-old son with special needs, raising money for the Jewish National Fund or refusing to ignore his Blackberry on vacation.

“The thing about Eddie, you can be half way around the world with him. It won’t matter the time zone. He’s on the phone, talking about deals,” said Nathan Bachrach, CEO and founder of Simply Money Advisors, a Sycamore Township-based investment advisory firm.

Eddie Paul. Photo by Emily Maxwell

Bachrach questions Paul's fashion choices - sneakers with suits and long-sleeve cotton shirts from Costco - but he never questions his friend's devotion to favorite causes. Paul has been a big contributor to Children’s Hospital Medical Center and an indoor playground, fortified against rockets in Sderot, Israel.

“Eddie is a really sweet guy and a quiet guy,” Bachrach said. “He’s the last guy to tell you what he’s done. He’s the last guy to tell you who he knows.”

Paul’s uncle helped recruit Oscar Robertson to the University of Cincinnati. Paul has offered business advice to Robertson over the years, recently finding a new headquarters site in Norwood for Robertson's specialty chemical company, Orchem Corp.

“I’ve known Eddie Paul since he was a little boy,” Robertson said. “He’s a treasure for the city of Cincinnati.”

Paul was a college roommate and Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brother of John Barrett, president and CEO of Western & Southern Financial Group. Their University of Cincinnati classmates included Butler County Commissioner T.C. Rogers and Over-the-Rhine developers Bill Baum and Rick Kimbler.

“Eddie’s got a big heart,” said Barrett. “He’s always trying to include his children in stuff too, trying to show them, ‘Hey, here’s the world that’s out there.’”

Eddie Paul, left, with son, Jake, daughter Lainey and wife, Nina. Photo provided by Paul family

‘You do the best you can with what you’ve got’

Paul has six children, including three from a previous marriage who live in California.

Eddie and Nina Paul, who married in 1986, have three children together. Lainey, 21, lives in Israel. Jake, 20, is a UC engineering student and an accomplished gymnast. Jake’s twin brother, Max, lives in his own house with round-the-clock care, after a series of behavioral problems that followed a 2002 surgery to remove a nonmalignant brain tumor.

The tumor left Max with limited mobility and an inability to sense when he is thirsty or feel when he’s full. At times, he’s been aggressive and self-injurious.

“We’ve sent him to every single behavioral research institute in the country to find some … magic pill,” said Nina Paul. But the solutions seemed to do more harm than good.

So, the Paul family moved to the Sycamore School District to take advantage of its special education programs. They bought a three-bedroom home on a quiet street in Montgomery and they pay two caregivers to provide 24-7 coverage for Max. Eddie Paul visits almost every day, helping with therapy, working word puzzles with his son.

“He has the patience of a saint to be able to spend the amount of time and energy he does with Max,” said Nina Paul. “The devotion is absolutely incredible.”

Max Paul. Photo provided by Paul family

Jim Anderson recalls seeing Paul walking with Max in the concourse at Children’s Hospital Medical Center just about every Saturday. Anderson was CEO of Children’s at the time, but he’s known the Paul family since the 1970s, when he worked as a corporate attorney for Paul’s father and uncle.

Max Paul became the “central mission in life” for Eddie and Nina Paul, Anderson recalls. “It was just a very impressive, sweet, caring, long-term, committed set of goals they pursued for the family that really put Max’s welfare at the top of the list.”

In 2007, they established a fund at Children’s Hospital that supports the “educational needs of children and adolescents with chronic medical conditions,” according to a hospital spokesman.

The same year they established the Max Paul fund at Children’s, Eddie Paul sold Queen City Barrel and settled with his insurance company. And Nina Paul sold her jewelry business. Eddie Paul said the events were not connected, that both he and his wife had considered selling for years. But he added that Max’s illness impacted his entire family.

“Max is a very gifted young man,” said Paul. “Really, a lot of Max’s behavior is from frustration. He knew what he had and he now knows what he doesn’t have. When you’re a smart guy, you realize what you lost. He’s doing decent, goes to school every day. You do the best you can with what you’ve got.”

Queen City Barrel becomes MetroWest

The city of Cincinnati is trying to do just that with property that Queen City Barrel sat on by using it as a catalyst for brownfield redevelopment project called MetroWest. The goal is a $34 million commerce park with hundreds of new jobs. The city spent $9.8 million to acquire about 18 acres, demolish buildings, remove contaminated dirt and prepare for 250,000 square feet of office, light industrial and flexible warehouse tenants.

The project achieved a major milestone in June when the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency deemed the site clean enough to issue a covenant not to sue. That’s an assurance that future tenants won’t face environmental liability from toxins left by past tenants. Now, the city’s development partners – Resurgence Group and Al Neyer Inc. – are actively seeking tenants.

“Not having a covenant is a big impediment to sites like this. (During the cleanup phase) people that came through were concerned about that for good reason,” said Sam Stephens, senior development officer for the city. “That’s why the state created what’s called the Voluntary Action Program, which sets up standards to define how clean a property has to be for either residential or commercial use.”

MetroWest development site.

A 2005 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said 41,407 barrels were removed from the fire site, along with 5,165 gallons of waste, including flammable and corrosive liquids. Paul said Queen City Barrel paid for demolition and cleanup before handing its 12-acre site over to the city. He thinks the site was clean enough for industrial use by the end of 2007.

“We didn’t dump things on our site. We didn’t do things that would have really created major issues,” he said. “We closed that site with little or no problems.”

But city consultants saw it differently, not only at Queen City Barrel, but at six other properties that were emptied and demolished at MetroWest.

This map shows areas of dirt excavated at MetroWest

Stephens said the city spent $4.6 million on clean up alone. Records show it removed dirt and underground storage tanks that contained lead, PCBs, chromium, benzo(a)pyrenes, naphthalene and various other petroleum-based compounds. Some of the dirt was treated on site. In 26 locations, clean up crews removed two to six feet of soil and covered it with a two-foot cap of clean dirt.

The site comes with future restrictions. Construction crews will have to take special precautions if they dig deeper than two feet to install new buildings to avoid inhaling or coming into contact with soil beneath the cap. Well water on the site can’t be used for drinking and vapor barriers may be required to keep volatile organic chemicals in the soil from migrating into new structures.

“I wouldn’t put a house on it or let my kids play there, but it’s usable for commercial/industrial use,” said Larry Falkin, director of the city’s office of environmental sustainability.

Stephens said the city has shown the property to five “serious prospects” since the beginning of 2014. A serious prospect means they’ve inquired multiple times or made a site visit. No deals are in the works, he added.

Adding Up The Costs

Paul said he doesn’t know how much his company paid toward the cleanup of the site, but after insurance payments and the land sale, he doesn’t think it lost money because of the fire.

“I’d say you basically just either broke even or you paid your bills,” he said.

A WCPO review of public records indicates Queen City Barrel paid about $1 million for cleanup and environmental penalties stemming from the 2004 fire but received much more than that from insurance proceeds and sale of the property.

The breakdown:

  • Paul sold 12 acres of Lower Price Hill property to the city of Cincinnati in April, 2006 for $1.625 million. That price was less than the property’s appraised value but more than the $1.2 million price tag city officials thought they’d negotiated before the fire. The contract was never signed. Paul said he never intended to sell at that price.

  • Paul sued his insurers in August, 2006 to recover “substantial losses” from the fire. The case ended in 2007 with Steadfast Insurance Co. agreeing to a settlement. Paul won’t say what he received, only that it was less than the $5 million coverage limit on his policy.

  • A January 2007 summary prepared for the city’s Clean Ohio Fund application said the company paid $832,275 for “demolition and environmental cleanup associated with their burned building.” But in his final reports on the Clean Ohio Fund grant, Stephens was able to document only $165,000 in spending from Queen City Barrel. He doesn’t doubt that the company paid more than that. But that’s all he could document with invoices and canceled checks, he said.

  • A 2012 court order required Queen City Barrel to pay a $90,000 civil penalty for environmental violations that followed the fire. The company also agreed to pay $60,000 to fund a county-wide waste drop off program.

Paul told fire investigators in 2004 that he had several outstanding loans on the property. But he said he doesn’t know what his cost basis was in the property or whether insurance payments and sale proceeds resulted in a net gain from the fire.

“My personal bank account didn’t get any bigger. How’s that?” he said.

Costs To Taxpayers: Nearly $10 Million 

Whether he gained more than he lost in the fire, Paul clearly did not outspend taxpayers when it came to making the site marketable.

Stephens said the city covered $5.35 million of MetroWest’s total project costs from its capital budgets and federal Community Development Block Grant funding. Another $3 million came from the state’s Clean Ohio Fund. The city won two grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to cover an additional $1.275 million.

To Paul, that is not evidence of site contamination, but that people tend to use available “pots of money.”

As for the health impact of his company on the surrounding neighborhood, Paul said an employee in the dirtiest part of his operation – a shot blasting booth in which burned out chemicals were removed from the insides of barrels – lived to the age of 96. Paul said he has worked with barrels since the age of 15 and is “still in one piece.”

“I don’t know what causes what,” he said. “I feel that we were always fairly safe.”

‘Eddie’s not done’

A review of environmental enforcement activity at the two local sites currently managed by Paul shows no violations in the last five years at the Cargo Clean facility on Depot Street or its Northside facility on Dreman Ave. Two violations were recorded at Allied Drum Inc. of Louisville in April, 2013. The former Queen City Barrel plant in Columbus has been in “significant violation” of Clean Air Act standards for the last three years.

Like the Queen City Barrel Co. site in Lower Price Hill, the former Columbus Steel Drum facility in Gahanna has a long run of enforcement activity dating back to the 1990s. Paul’s company acquired it in 2001 and sold it in 2007, but Paul continues to manage the property on behalf of ICS.

Queen City Barrel agreed to address soil, water and air pollution problems at the site in 2005 but was sued for lack of progress in 2006. Three years later, Ohio’s Attorney General settled with ICS in a consent order that led to final approval of a cleanup plan in 2010.

Related EPA enforcement history:

As for his ongoing compliance record, Paul said Aurora Capital, a Beverly Hills –based private equity firm that bought ICS in 2011, “isn’t going to put up with” serious violations. But that doesn’t mean it will avoid violations related to record-keeping and minor infractions.

“You know you’re always involved in something,” he said.

And in the meantime, Paul is ramping up his real estate investments. Hamilton County Auditor records indicate $3.5 million in new acquisitions since 2011, including a three-story office building near the Hamilton County Justice Center and the former Jim Beam distribution plant in Carthage.

Ever the recycler, Paul said he has sold most of the 110 stainless steel tanks that Jim Beam once used to hold spirits. They were removed from the property and sold to distilleries in Florida and Kentucky.

“I am interested in industrial sites that have some value because of what’s in them or whatever,” he said. “This is a nice piece of property. Something eventually will come up.”

Paul’s real estate company, E. Paul Corp., has also acquired commercial real estate sites in South Cumminsville and the former Metro Containers site on Lloyd Ave. in Norwood.

Eddie Paul at his desk in his office in August, 2014. Photo by Emily Maxwell

“Eddie’s not done,” said John Barrett, his longtime friend and former college roommate. “He’s been buying some interesting properties. I’m sure you’re going to hear more from Eddie along the lines of entrepreneurial ownership.”

As for Paul, he figures he has at least another 10 years of work left in him. With his Blackberry buzzing and spectacles perched on the end of his nose, Paul quips:

“I’ll never retire."


Read More

This profile is part of of the series Rising from the Ashes, in which WCPO remembers the Queen City Barrel fire a decade later.  We invite you to explore photos, an interactive timeline as well as articles about the Lower Price Hill neighborhood and the firefighters who battled the blaze at www.wcpo.com/QCBarrelFire.

PHOTOS: The fire, from the Cincinnati Fire Department's perspective

PHOTOS: The people of Price Hill 


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About this Project

A WCPO team of reporters interviewed firefighters, residents, environmental experts; reviewed hundreds of pages of investigative records and EPA findings as well as analyzed Hamilton County death records. 

  • Dan Monk, reporter
  • Lucy May, reporter
  • Elissa Yancey, contributing environmental reporter
  • Keith Rutowski and Emily Maxwell, photographers
  • Mark Nichols, data specialist
  • Brian Niesz, multimedia producer/designer
  • Anne Hallilwell, interactive timeline
  • Maxim Alter, then and now graphic
  • Chris Graves and David Holthaus, editors