Company pleads guilty to illegally storing hazardous waste

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   An Oak Ridge company which processes commercial low-level radioactive waste pleaded guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court in Greeneville to illegally storing hazardous waste without a permit.
   American Ecology Recycle Center Inc., a subsidiary of American Ecology Corp., entered into a plea agreement and was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and acknowledge paying an additional $25,000 to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Tennessee Valley Authority Police for environmental protection in East Tennessee.
   According to American Ecology, the company recently voluntarily contributed $12,500 to each agency. The company also paid a $100,000 civil penalty which was assessed in November 2000 as a result of the illegal storage.
   The case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office/Eastern District following investigation by the East Tennessee Environmental Crimes Task Force.
   U.S. Attorney Harry Mattice Jr. said the case represents "a significant prosecution that continues our long-term commitment to environmental enforcement in East Tennessee."
   Mattice praised the hard work of agents from the FBI, the Offices of Inspector General for the Department of Energy and TVA, TVA Police, and the Environmental Protection Agency's Criminal Investigation Division.
   According to Mattice, American Ecology Recycle Center, 109 Flint Road, illegally stored water treatment sludge containing chromium and lead, and waste compactor sludge containing chromium, lead and selenium between April 1, 1997, and Dec. 20, 2000, in violation of the Resource, Conservation and Recovery Act.
   The recycle center purchased the facility from Quadrex Corp. in September 1994 and spent approximately $27 million in documented cleanup and disposal costs to address the waste storage issues.
   Under terms of the purchase, Quadrex was to be responsible for costs involved in disposal of low-level radioactive waste either onsite or contracted out. Quadrex went bankrupt, however, and American Ecology Recycle Center (AERC) became responsible for the site. Because AERC consistently lost money, according to Mattice, the $27 million was paid from funds derived from operations of the parent company and its other holdings.
   AERC is licensed by Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's Division of Radiological Health to process radioactively contaminated materials and to survey and release material proven to be below the limits for contamination stated in its license. The company was authorized to receive various types of radioactive waste, scrap metals and contaminated equipment primarily from nuclear power plants, U.S. government operations, and private sector radioactive materials users and processors.
   Prior to July 1994, metals were cleaned at Quadrex in a chemical decontamination unit called the "chemline process," which consisted of dipping parts in vats filled with hydrofluoric, nitric, sulfuric, phosphoric and hydrochloric acids and sodium hydroxide. On July 16, 1994, a fire destroyed the chemline process unit and the wastewater treatment system. Approximately 29,000 gallons of chemline fire residue were accumulated as a result.
   Mattice said AERC initially took the position it didn't have to treat the material as waste because it could be used once the chemline process became operational again. Ultimately, however, AERC determined the residue was a hazardous waste and in 1997, entered in a consent order with EPA to properly manage the waste.
   AERC witnesses, however, reported that other containers holding freon, chemline waste and sludges were stored on site and that a number of them were corroded and in bad condition.
   In September 1999, federal investigators executed a search warrant at the recycle facility and took samples from several of the stored containers. An additional 450 containers were sampled and analyzed, with 28 of those found to contain hazardous waste which the company did not have a RCRA permit to store.
   On Dec. 20, 2000, the 28 drums containing 15,232 pounds of hazardous waste was shipped to Envirocare of Utah for disposal. The waste had been improperly stored at the facility since April 1, 1997.
   Steve Romano, president and chief executive officer of American Ecology Corp., said Thursday, "The past, improper management of these materials was an unacceptable departure from American Ecology's commitment to the highest standards of compliance with environmental regulations."
   Romano also said that the senior managers responsible for the Oak Ridge subsidiary when the problem arose are no longer employed by the company.