Ker Westerlund on High Street in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Ker Westerlund on High Street in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Thursday June 2, 2011

BRATTLEBORO-- The state recently sent a notice to Ker-Westerlund & Fleming Funeral Home informing the funeral home and crematory that it has several violations following a inspections by the Department of Environmental Conservation.

The state department's air pollution control division was prompted to conduct inspections last September and this March after residents complained that the crematory was sometimes emitting an odor and dark smoke.

Located on High Street, Ker-Westerlund is adjacent to the downtown area and multiple residences.

The violations were outlined in a letter addressed to Matt Walker, Ker-Westerland's location manager, dated May 17.

The crematory's violations of its state air pollution control permit include not pre-heating its last combustion chamber to the required temperature of 1,600 degrees. According to Dave Shepard, environmental analyst for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, not heating up the chamber enough can cause dark smoke.

"If you've got good combustion, you shouldn't have much of any smoke," Shepard said.

The letter states that based on visual observation, the smoke stack does not extend four feet above the highest ridgeline of the building, as is required. Shepard said this could make smoke more noticeable to near-by residents; instead of allowing the wind to pick up smoke, sending it upward and away from people, a low stack with a higher roof line around it could be prone to smoke "down-wash," which could cause a problem for neighbors.

He added that though each inspection only took place during a window of two-and-a-half hours, the time it takes to complete one body, he asked the employees questions about their regular practices.

One violation that employees admitted to, or were unaware of, was the occasional cremation of a body in a PVC body bag. Shepard said he inquired as to why this happened and found out that decomposing bodies are sometimes stored in PVC and are not removed from the bag to protect employees' health.

The notice states that the Air Pollution Control Division will not expect Ker-Westerlund to adhere to the rule prohibiting PVC in circumstances where transferring the body could result in unsanitary conditions, provided it is an uncommon occurrence.

It was also found that a certified operator is not always on site for the duration of each cremation as the permit requires.

"We appreciate the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation bringing these concerns to our attention. We take these matters very seriously," said Jessica S. McDunn, spokeswoman for Service Corporation International, the company that owns Ker-Westerlund.

"We are in the process of working with the department in addressing the issues outlined in the letter. We plan to have most of the issues resolved promptly and plan to have all of the issues resolved in the near future," McDunn said in the statement provided via e-mail.

Walker declined to comment at this time.

Issues with the crematory began several years ago.

Fire Chief Michael Bucossi placed a call to the Department of Environmental Conservation after the fire department responded to a number of calls regarding smoke coming from the chimney.

In 2010, Bucossi told the Reformer his department responded to the site 11 times over the last two years. He said Wednesday that he has not received any lately.

In 2009 there was fire at the funeral home caused by the smoke stack for the crematory, which didn't have enough clearance around it where it went up through the attic.

"Over time it dried out the wood around the chimney until it ignited," Bucossi explained.

After the fire, residents submitted a petition signed by more than 100 townspeople asking that it not be permitted to rebuild, but according to Barbara Sondag, town manger, the town did not have authority to act on that request.

"There are no town ordinances with regard to air pollution and those types of things," Sondag said, "and they had no violations to any town ordinances."

Bucossi added that Ker-Westerlund went through the necessary channels to rebuild.

Sondag said the contractor worked closely with the fire department to make sure the building adhered to fire codes. 

Bucossi said that to his knowledge the fire department hasn't received any complaints since the first inspection last fall, but still many residents are unhappy living in close proximity to the operation.

"I've seen smoke this spring," said William Gembarowski, who estimated his back lawn to be less than 25 yards from the funeral home.

"But I'm not going to call anybody because nothing's going to be done about it. I'm convinced of that," he said.

"Things still aren't going the way they are supposed to be with the running of that business," agreed resident William Wallace. "It's something people here would like to bring to light."

Wallace lives on High Street in the closest residence to Ker-Westerlund and said he's observed dark black smoke and continued operations up until 9:30 p.m. with no operator on site.

One holiday weekend last summer it burned for 42 hours straight, he said.

"It's not an appropriate place for a crematorium."

"I am a neighbor, and it's unpleasant," said Brattleboro resident Stephen Barrett. "It has an unpleasant odor you can smell when there are certain discharges, and I've noticed dark, heavy smoke coming out the chimney before."

Gembarowski said a new annoyance began recently.

"It's a constant noise because they put in a new five-ton air conditioner in the back now, which was not part of the operation before that," he said.

"Try sitting on your back porch and having the smoke come, and the odor," he added.

Shepard said Air Pollution Control may follow-up on the height of the smoke stack but that most of the violations are procedural in nature and difficult to monitor.

"We'll be following up with them to make sure the things indicated are done, and any further involvement would be related to whether we continue to get complaints or not," Shepard said.

Jaime Cone can be reached at jcone@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.