Vavra: Austin Master, CEO both in contempt of court

$200 daily fine and 30-day jail sentence to be imposed unless facility becomes compliant

T-L Photo/JENNIFER COMPSTON-STROUGH People listen to testimony Tuesday in Belmont County Common Pleas Court during a hearing to determine whether Austin Master Services is in contempt of court.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Austin Master Services LLC will be fined $200 a day and its CEO will spend 30 days in jail unless the oil and gas waste at its Martins Ferry facility is reduced to permitted levels by July 22.

At the conclusion of a hearing held Monday and Tuesday in Belmont County Common Pleas Court, Judge John Vavra ruled that the fracking waste processing company and Brad J. Domitrovitsch, CEO of parent company American Environmental Partners Inc., are both in contempt of court for failing to meet a court-ordered April 17 deadline to clean up the facility. Vavra said the daily fine would be implemented immediately, beginning Tuesday, and continuing until the amount of waste at the site is determined by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of OIl and Gas Resources Management to be within the limits of its permit.

Austin Master’s operating permit states that it can store up to 600 tons of oilfield waste products. Estimates indicate that the company has around 10,000 tons of waste, some of which is radioactive, on site.

Vavra also ordered Domitrovitsch, who was not present but was represented by counsel, to report to the Belmont County Jail in St. Clairsville to begin serving a 30-day sentence at 9 a.m. July 22. That sentence will not be imposed if the quantity of waste stored in the facility at 801 N. First St. in Martins Ferry is within permitted limits by that date.

The cleanup deadline was established as a result of a complaint filed by Ohio attorney General Dave Yost on behalf of the division after its inspections on Feb. 7 and March 15 revealed that a “substantial” amount of waste had been accepted and piled up “beyond the containment walls,” according to testimony Tuesday by Tara Lee, assistant chief of the ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management. She also noted that 4K Industrial Park, which owns the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel mille where Austin Master is housed, asked the division to monitor and validate anyone coming and going from the site, which has been locked and secured. She said 4K staff had seen people trying to enter the plant.

Lee was the only witness called by the state on Tuesday. The defense called a single witness, Richard Hurey, who told the court that he had worked for about two years as a controller for American Environmental Partners Inc.

On the stand, Hurey identified board members and officers of AEPI, noting that of that group, only Domitrovitsch remains involved with the company. He testified that Domitrovitsch spent most of his time seeking better financing for the company, adding that its liabilities included “high-interest loans” that had contributed to its lack of cash and assets.

According to Hurey, Austin Master was “OK” financially when it was acquired by AEPI in 2022 and had 30-40 employees on site. He said the operation was breaking even but added that within a couple of months of the purchase, its financial condition was declining. In addition to high-interest loans, he said the division’s order to cease accepting waste affected the plant’s ability to generate revenue.

According to Hurey, who said he continues to occasionally work for AEPI on a pro bono basis, only two people are now employed at Austin Master. The rest of the staff was laid off or resigned shortly after the division issued its order on March 15. He noted that AEPI staff also was laid off, and he said Domitrovitsch continues to work but is not being paid.

While the state questioned where the money generated by collecting the excess waste had gone, the defense maintained that with no cash on hand, no assets that can be converted to cash and no investor secured to take over the permit to operate and perform cleanup, it is impossible for Domitrovitsch and Austin Master to remove the waste from the facility.

Vavra, though, was not convinced.

“Neither AMS LLC nor Mr. Domitrovitsch has shown adequate cause as to why they should not be cited in contempt. They have failed to show adequate cause why they have not availed themselves of the provisions of that order that they could request an extension of the deadlines. Therefore, the court is going to find that they are both in contempt of the order,” Vavra ruled.


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