Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: EPA finds Wisconsin barrel plants violating environmental laws
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found a chain of industrial refurbishing plants in the Milwaukee area violated federal law, the agency announced Wednesday.By John Diedrich
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found a chain of industrial refurbishing plants in the Milwaukee area violated federal law, the agency announced Wednesday.
The EPA determined the plants in St. Francis, Oak Creek and Milwaukee were breaking the law by transporting, storing and treating hazardous waste without required licenses, among other violations.
EPA inspectors said plant officials blocked their entry into the St. Francis plant for nearly 30 minutes, even though they had a warrant issued by a federal magistrate judge. They also were initially denied access to the Oak Creek plant.
The agency took the unusual step of seeking the warrant after suspecting the company had "staged" operations in its plants during an earlier inspection.
Once inside, investigators found a host of problems: barrels labeled as "non-hazardous" that contained flammable chemicals; drums leaking unknown chemicals onto the ground; milky white plumes of smoke puffing out of the St. Francis facility, creating a "standing haze;" and a barrel that workers said was for water, but actually contained ignitable hazardous waste.
The inspections were initiated following a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation, published in February, which uncovered a host of problems that endangered workers and residents living near the company's plants in the Milwaukee area and three other states — Tennessee, Indiana and Arkansas.
Workers at the plants told the Journal Sentinel that chemicals were routinely mixed together, triggering dangerous reactions that resulted in chemical and heat-related burns, injuries from exploding barrels, breathing difficulties and other health problems.
Residents near the St. Francis plant say it is often miserable living there. Fumes result in burning eyes, sore throats and headaches, forcing them to stay in their homes at times. Three of the residents have filed a class-action lawsuit.
The three plants, known locally as Mid-America, are operated by Container Life Cycle Management, a joint venture majority owned by Greif Inc., a $3.3 billion Ohio-based firm.
The plants refurbish 55-gallon steel drums and large plastic chemical containers, cleaning them for reuse or recycling. Drums that cannot be refurbished are burned.
By law, barrels that arrive at the plant are supposed to be essentially empty with no more than an inch of contents in the bottom.
But the inspectors found barrels and totes with a significant amount of chemicals inside — called "heavies" in the industry — that had been sitting there in one case for at least three months, in violation of the law, the EPA said. Plant officials said workers determined if a barrel was heavy by "feel."
The EPA tested the air near the St. Francis facility in response to resident complaints and the "smelly emissions from the plant." During their investigation, two EPA inspectors who were interviewing residents themselves reported feeling ill.
Air testing by the EPA revealed the presence of volatile organic compounds associated with industrial activity. The agency is analyzing the data to determine if there is a health risk to workers and residents. The agency plans more testing.
The agency issued notices against the St. Francis and Oak Creek plants, alleging 13 violations of the federal Clean Air Act. The Milwaukee plant does not have a burning operation.
At the Oak Creek facility, the EPA says the company illegally treated hazardous waste in an incinerator. At St. Francis, the agency alleges the plant failed to control or measure potentially hazardous emissions, didn't keep adequate records or obtain proper permits and failed to adequately respond to requests for information.
Soil testing by the agency did not reveal levels of contamination that violated federal law.
In a statement, a Greif spokeswoman said the company learned of the EPA violations Monday and continues to cooperate with regulators. The statement also contended regulators have changed their past standards to find problems.
"We are not perfect and will always work to address issues in cooperation with regulators," said Debbie Crow, in the statement. "Company representatives have met — on a voluntary basis — with federal and state environmental regulators on multiple occasions to discuss perceived issues."
The company has 30 days to respond. Documents indicate the EPA will then consider a fine, but no amount was listed.
"EPA, in coordination with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and other government agencies, continues to investigate and intends to take appropriate action," an agency statement said.
The EPA is the latest regulatory agency to conclude the barrel plants are breaking the law. The EPA is one of at least five government agencies investigating the plants following the Journal Sentinel's investigation, citizen complaints and several letters from U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and other members of Congress.
“I am pleased that they have now identified violations and are moving forward with issuing penalties and bringing the company into compliance," said Baldwin, who called on EPA to investigate in February. "Our work here is not done and I will continue to demand answers.”
The state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Department of Transportation together have uncovered three dozen violations. DOT has expanded its investigation to 13 plants all tied to Greif in nine states.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration found 15 violations at the Milwaukee facility and issued a $108,000 fine. OSHA continues to investigate the plants in Oak Creek and St. Francis but has not reported findings.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) said the EPA's findings are "deeply disturbing" given the population around the plants and credited the Journal Sentinel's investigation with bringing the dangers to light.
“Today’s announcement not only stresses the need for enhanced transparency in the private sector, but it also underscores the necessity for press freedom and a responsive EPA that can hold companies accountable for breaking laws that protect the public," she said.
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District found mercury in wastewater discharge from the St. Francis plant that repeatedly was over legal limits. While the issue existed for at least the past four years, MMSD did not meet with the company until a month after the Journal Sentinel investigation. The company promised to clean up the problem.
The Journal Sentinel findings were based on 16 hours of audio recordings by a whistle-blower; hundreds of pages of documents, including internal injury reports and safety audits; as well as public records and interviews with workers, regulators, and experts.
The whistleblower, Will Kramer, said Wednesday plant officials had plans for staging operations when government inspectors came, and the most recent blocked entry may have allowed them to prepare employees.
Kramer applauded the EPA's action, but he said regulators have as yet failed to determine where the barrels full of hazardous waste are sent.
"After further confirmation that this company has been illegally storing, treating, and transporting hazardous waste, my question continues to be: where did all of that hazardous waste end up? So far, neither the company nor regulators have answered that question."
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