A marijuana growing facility in a small Pennsylvania town reeks so intensely that many neighbors say they can’t open their windows in the summer without feeling sick.
The acrid stench from Standard Farms’ greenhouses can be detected up to a half-mile across the Luzerne County community of White Haven. Complaints were routine at borough meetings, minutes show. Several neighbors claim they have struggled to sell their houses — as their property values crashed — since the marijuana producer moved into the tiny Poconos hamlet.
“I open my back door and you’d think there was 20 skunks in my garage,” said nearby resident Doreen Ackers. "It takes your breath away. "
That’s not all that smells bad in White Haven.
Three former Standard Farms executives claim the company violated state laws and skirted regulations. They allege that the company used banned pesticides, illegally imported seeds and clones, recycled returned product that should have been destroyed, and asked its employees to perjure themselves on legal documents.
“I wasn’t going to go to jail for lying,” said former executive Lisa Pabon.
A company representative said "Standard Farms refutes all of these allegations as being untrue. The company believes the source of these comments may be coming from a disgruntled employee.”
Standard Farms was founded by two former hedge fund executives from New York City with no agricultural or horticultural experience. It says it’s now the largest employer in White Haven, population 1,097. Standard Farms employs about 20 full-timers and claims more than 50 part-time employees.
The company says it’s a good corporate citizen. It was named “Best Business of the Year” in 2019 by the Greater White Haven Chamber of Commerce. (The ”Outstanding Business Award,” which appears to carry more cachet, was awarded to Renee’s Cold Cut Hut.)
Nearly two years ago, Standard Farms began growing medical marijuana in White Haven. The company was one of the first 12 awarded a permit by the state Department of Health. The firm is now a division of a multinational weed conglomerate called Tilt Holdings, based in Boston and Toronto.
Claiming ethical lapses at the company, several executives have left the company rather than risk their professional reputations, they said. One would-be whistle-blower tried to alert the state health department to potential health risks at Standard Farms. But she couldn’t get anyone at the department to take her calls or reply to her Facebook messages, she said.
As the legislature mulls legalizing recreational use, two former Standard Farms executives question whether the state can police an industry poised for the huge growth that legalization would bring. They say what has happened in White Haven should serve as a warning.
Standard Farm’s director of quality assurance quit in protest rather than break the law, according to court records.
Renee Kelso said she’s bound by a non-disclosure agreement from talking about her tenure at Standard Farms. But in court testimony, Kelso said she tried to prevent her bosses from using a hydrogen peroxide mist, a state-banned disinfectant, on drying marijuana. The substance is often used to remove traces of mildew and mold. The health department specifically forbids its use on marijuana.
Penn State professor Alyssa A. Collins, who describes herself as a “vice crops enthusiast,” explained that without sufficient testing, hydrogen peroxide could alter the levels of desirable or undesirable chemical compounds in cannabis plants.
Despite Kelso’s protests, her bosses overrode her. “I tried to stop it,” Kelso said in court testimony. “I was told that compliance was no longer my job. And I walked out.” On her way out of the building, she snapped a photo of the SteraMist van that had come to apply the product.
A former owner of Standard Farms who spoke only condition that he not be identified, disputed Kelso’s account. “It didn’t happen,” he said. “Ask her if she saw it being used.”
“Things I wasn’t comfortable with.”
Standard Farm’s former head of cultivation, Paul Karlovich, said he resigned in July 2018. "Part of the reason I left was I was asked to do things I wasn’t comfortable with.”
Karlovich has worked in industrial agriculture for three decades. “I’ve grown every plant on God’s earth as an ornamental,” he said. But his experience at Standard Farms left him with such a bitter taste that he said he’ll likely never work for a marijuana company again.
“There were many disgruntled employees, almost every single one,” he said.
Karlovich explained that Pennsylvania law provides a one month window for growers to bring in seeds and cuttings from out-of-state.
“We were bringing in material illegally after the 30-day deadline,” Karlovich told The Inquirer. “Stuff just started showing up. I didn’t like it. I refused to allow them to do it at first. I would say I was coerced. They kept asking me. I relented. They’ll deny it, of course.”
On the federal level, marijuana remains illegal. But if marijuana companies adhere to state regulations, federal prosecutors usually look the other way.
On the state level, the health department may revoke a company’s permit if the regulations are ignored.
Tim Conder, chief operating officer of Tilt Holdings, said the state-required seed-to-sale tracking system should have prevented anyone from importing seeds and cuttings past the allowable date. “If there’s a cultivation manager telling you there’s a way to game the system, that’s a problem for me. No way is there a culture of trying to game the system. You grow globally by not end-running regulations.”
Though it’s called a weed, marijuana is a notoriously fickle crop. Mold is a constant problem in the humid summers of Pennsylvania, Karlovich said, making a clean cannabis crop difficult to grow. “It was a disaster in the making."
We didn’t have the tools to mitigate the powdery mildew. So that was another reason I just chose to leave.”
Fired, now a whistleblower
Standard Farm’s former director of administrative operations, Lisa Pabon, said she was fired Sept. 5, 2018, days after she refused to perjure herself on legal documents.
A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Pabon segued into a 25-year career in financial management. She said she was lured to Standard Farms with the promise of an ownership share in the company.
Her bosses at Standard Farms wanted to submit applications for a second growing operation in New Jersey. They also were applying for retail dispensaries in Pennsylvania. Because Pabon is a veteran, a woman, and over 50, both states would have awarded the company bonus points if she was listed as a senior officer.
Pabon asked to see the biography the company was submitting. She said Standard Farms had grossly overstated her qualifications. At one point, they told her to claim that she was also head of diversity and community outreach. She never worked those jobs.
In addition, the name of the company on the application was now Altus New Jersey. “I’d never heard of them,” she said. Pabon refused to submit her portion of the application. “I wasn’t going to go to jail for lying,” she said. Five days later, Pabon was unemployed.
She filed a wrongful termination suit earlier this year. The case was dismissed shortly before Thanksgiving. Neither side can discuss the arbitrator’s decision.
Former owner Jonathon Goldrath told the court that he fired Pabon because she was rude, incompetent, and hard to work with. But a month before he terminated her, Standard Farms gave Pabon a $25,000 bonus to buy one of the houses next to the grow operation.
The New Jersey application did not win a permit. However, the Pennsylvania health department awarded the ownership group a permit to operate a chain of three shops near Harrisburg under the Local Dispensaries LLC brand. Its documents list Pabon and Kelso as senior corporate officers.
After she was fired, Pabon refused to accept a severance package, saying she didn’t want to be muzzled by a non-disclosure agreement.
Defective vape cartridges
Several months later, Pabon went to the health department to allege that Standard Farms “sold product with defective/leaky cartridges.” She said she considered that a potential health crisis. She said she couldn’t find anyone in the department to take her calls. “They didn’t know where to send me,” she said. So she posted a warning on the health department Facebook page, hoping someone at the department would take notice.
“What happened to the oil they contained?” she wrote on Facebook. "The lot was never recalled as it should’ve been nor has anyone heard of the devices being destroyed.”
Nate Wardle, a spokesman for the health department, said no one there saw Pabon’s Facebook alert. Wardle said the Office of Medical Marijuana doesn’t monitor the department’s social media pages.
“The department has not received any of this information regarding faulty cartridges, or any reports from the individual referenced,” said Wardle in an email, more than a month after the Inquirer asked about the Facebook post. “Anyone with information regarding faulty cartridges should contact the Office of Medical Marijuana. It is essential that anyone with concerns regarding the quality of the program contact us.”
Pabon kept records documenting at least $15,000 worth of returned vape cartridges from patients and retailers.
Pennsylvania regulations require that the health department be alerted to any recalled marijuana product. The record of their return -- and their destruction -- should be contained in the state’s seed-to-sale tracking system.
“The department does not have any record of Standard Farms products being returned,” said Wardle in a follow-up email.
If the company destroyed the defective products, Pabon said she would have recorded the loss on her financial records. The company recorded no such loss.
She suspects the oils were recycled, in violation of the law
Asked by the Inquirer about the vape cartridges, the former owner of Standard Farms said Pabon had violated a confidentiality agreement by speaking about it. He added that the vapes never posed a health risk. The next day, Standard Farm’s lawyers sent Pabon a cease and desist letter threatening legal action. The former owner could not say what Standard Farms did with the returned medical marijuana oil.
“Everything we have done is in accordance with the regulations," he said.
Skunk and diesel
Meanwhile, Standard Farms was dealing with chronic complaints from neighbors.
The tract is zoned as light industrial, but the adjacent homes were built when the property hosted a small electronics manufacturer.
Unlike most marijuana growers in the state, Standard Farms does not cultivate in a enclosed warehouse. It uses a quartet of glass greenhouses to cut the cost of energy intensive lighting. Powerful fans vent the fumes — a pungent perfume of skunk and diesel — to the area.
“It’s not only an eyesore, the odor is tremendous,” said neighbor Cindy Derolf whose home was within 60 feet of the greenhouses. “And there was no warning it was coming to town.”
Former head cultivator Karlovich said the company struggled to battle the smell. “They didn’t have a proper odor mitigation system designed. It was all done on the cheap. It’s really expensive to retrofit.”
Many residents gave up using their sun porches. Some have given up their homes entirely.
Derolf sold her house to Lisa Pabon.
Patty and Ted Horn said they relocated a year ago despite not being able to sell their house. “We have complained and complained and complained. We moved primarily because of the smell,” said Patty Horn.
The scent has discouraged potential buyers and depressed property values, Ted Horn said. “We first listed it at $232,000. We’ve had to mark it down to $179,000. Still no interest."
Neighbor Gordon Ackers said he and his wife Doreen would move if they could. They’re afraid the smell will only become more intense as producers try to keep up with soaring demand.
“They’re going to want to build more greenhouses,” Ackers said with a tone of resignation.