San Benito Food repairs in limbo

Four months after the collapse of a roof at a Hollister tomato cannery sent workers scrambling for their lives, repair efforts have stalled.

Hollister city officials said this week that no new permits have been requested by San Benito Foods for further debris removal, construction or demolition of one section of a building on the  sprawling multi-block complex at the east edge of downtown Hollister.

City inspectors have not been called to check out completion of the debris removal work begun about a month after the Sept. 18 roof collapse of a Sally Street structure.

As many as 30 workers narrowly escaped injury in the Sept. 18 building failure at one of Hollister’s largest employers just as the peak tomato processing work in the city was winding down.

City inspectors said in October that an initial assessment of the collapse revealed that steam from decades of canning tomatoes may have caused dry rot in roof timbers at a San Benito Foods cannery building, triggering the catastrophic collapse.

Unless the city gets a request for permits for new construction, renovations or repairs, the decades-old industrial buildings won’t be inspected for any structural defects, regardless of age or condition. No work can occur without proper permits, they said.

Managers of privately held Neil Jones Foods of Vancouver, Washington, the owner of San Benito Foods, and local managers have avoided comment on the September incident or of the company’s plans for the damaged building.

The city’s permit office said that a final inspection of the debris removal has not yet occurred, that no permits have been requested for any construction or repair or renovations at any San Benito Foods buildings.

The local cannery giant has requested only a dozen such permits for repairs and renovations to its aging buildings over the past 35 years, according to city permit records.

City fire marshals inspect commercial buildings annually for potential fire hazards and the condition of fire retardant systems, but not structural issues.

In October and November, crews from a Fresno demolition and “deconstruction” company hauled away tons of debris from inside the cannery building on Sally Street. The vegetable packing company hired a structural engineer to inspect the site and supervise installation of wall braces to ensure the walls wouldn’t collapse during the debris removal. The regional air resources district determined that there were no asbestos contamination issues associated with the removal of the roof debris.

Any construction of a new roof will require detailed plans to be submitted to the city, which will require more inspections before, during and after the construction.

City inspectors would take a complete look at the structural integrity of the entire building after the cannery is cleared of debris.

The city has no plans to systematically look at every one of more than a dozen large manufacturing and warehouse structures in the four-block San Benito Foods campus. The company has been canning tomatoes in Hollister since 1910.

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