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Environmental Policy Roundup – 10/6/2010

US Ecology Fined Approximately $500,000 for Hazardous Waste Violations

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday fined US Ecology $497,982 for 18 counts of hazardous waste violations.

US Ecology operates a commercial hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facility in Nye County, Nev., on the outskirts of Beatty.

EPA inspectors found numerous violations at a hazardous waste unit designed to thermally treat contaminated materials, like soils, to remove the hazardous components. On two occasions, US Ecology reports showed that the unit was “smoking,” releasing hazardous components to the air. US Ecology has permanently shut down the treatment unit.

“We impose strict environmental controls to make sure hazardous waste is actually treated and not simply released into the air,” Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest said in a press release. “Our goal is to safeguard worker health and nearby communities, so it’s imperative for facilities like US Ecology to properly manage their waste.”

In addition, EPA inspectors found PCBs were improperly labeled, stored and handled at the facility. EPA sampling results detected  at elevated levels both in and outside the PCB storage building (43,500 ppm and 900 ppm, respectively). Inspectors determined that between 2006 and 2008 six spills, leaks or other uncontrolled PCB discharges occurred and were not reported as required by law.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are synthetic chemicals manufactured for use in various industrial and commercial applications – including oil in electrical and hydraulic equipment, and plasticizers in paints, plastics and rubber products – because of their non-flammability, chemical stability, high boiling point and electrical insulation properties.

When released into the environment, PCBs do not easily break apart.  Instead, they persist for many years, bio-accumulate and bio-concentrate in organisms.  The EPA has classified PCBs as probable human carcinogens.  Long-term effects of PCB exposure include harm to the nervous and reproductive system, immune system suppression, hormone disruption and skin and eye irritation.

EPA’s brought its enforcement action against US Ecology under The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) which oversees the safe management and disposal of hazardous waste.

US Ecology, which is publicly traded, is based in Boise, Idaho. It also runs facilities in Richland, Wash., Robstown, Texas, and Grand View, Idaho.

Ammonia Distributor Faces $149,000 Penalty

Tanner Industries, a company that distributes ammonia, faces a $149,080 penalty for violating federal regulations meant to prevent chemical accidents, according to a recent complaint by EPA, the agency reports.

Tanner operates ammonia distribution facilities across the country,  and is subject to the Clean Air Act’s risk management planning requirements because ammonia is an extremely hazardous substance. Although Tanner has a risk management plan, EPA’s New England office is proposing to fine Tanner for a deficiency in its plan concerning the failure to anticipate the problems that could arise if an ammonia release occurred at the company’s East Providence, RI facility during periods when the facility is unstaffed. In a separate administrative order issued in June 2009, EPA ordered Tanner to correct these deficiencies, and Tanner is cooperating, the agency said in a press release.

The East Providence facility is not routinely staffed except when ammonia is transported into or out of the facility. Tanner’s primary emergency plan is to rely on local emergency responders to respond to any ammonia releases, although the facility has no automatic ammonia sensors to alert emergency responders of potential releases. The facility is about a tenth of a mile from a residential neighborhood, and even closer to other businesses serving the public.

According to the complaint filed by EPA, Tanner failed to do the required analyses or take precautions to address the fact that its facility is not routinely staffed except when ammonia is being actually received or distributed. The complaint noted that Tanner failed to consider the use of sensors or monitors to detect leaks of ammonia or conditions that might lead to leaks. Tanner’s emergency response program also did not include adequate communication and coordination with local emergency response agencies, and the company’s plan did not ensure that the public would receive adequate notice of an accidental release.

Exposure to anhydrous ammonia, which is toxic and corrosive, can result in chemical-type burns to skin, eyes, and lungs. These burns may be serious enough to cause permanent blindness, lung disease, or death. 

In August, an ammonia spill at a meat processing plant near San Francisco caused eight workers exposed to ammonia to be hospitalized.

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