In­dus­trial bar­rel in­ves­ti­ga­tion goes na­tional

Agen­cies look into 13 fa­cil­i­ties in 9 states

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN DIEDRICH

Fed­eral reg­u­la­tors have ex­panded their in­ves­ti­ga­tion of in­dus­trial bar­rel re­fur­bish­ing plants na­tion­wide, ex­am­in­ing oper­a­tions and safety at 13 fa­cil­i­ties in nine states.

The multi-agency in­ves­ti­ga­tion ini­tially fo­cused on three such fa­cil­i­ties in the Mil­wau­kee area, where a Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ered a host of prob­lems en­dan­ger­ing work­ers and res­i­dents.

The U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion recorded 16 vi­o­la­tions at the three plants, in­clud­ing not prop­erly clean­ing and re­con­di­tion­ing the 55-gal­lon bar­rels, fail­ing to give employees ad­e­quate train­ing and not keep­ing re­quired pa­per­work, ac­cord­ing to a No­tice of Prob­a­ble Vi­o­la­tion is­sued Aug. 31 to Con­tainer Life Cy­cle Man­age­ment.

The depart­ment’s sanc­tions are the lat­est de­vel­op­ment as reg­u­la­tors con­tinue to in­ves­ti­gate the plants in Mil­wau­kee, St. Fran­cis and Oak Creek.

The Wis­con­sin Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources ear­lier found 19 en­vi­ron­men­tal vi­o­la­tions at the plants.

The U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency and the U.S. Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion also both con­tinue to in­ves­ti­gate. The EPA’s own in­spec­tors got sick as they talked to res­i­dents about smoke and odors near the St. Fran­cis plant.

The ac­tion comes fol­low­ing a Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Fe­bru­ary that re­vealed en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems and dan­ger­ous work­ing con­di­tions at the three Mil­wau­kee-area plants, as well as

fa­cil­i­ties in Arkansas, In­di­ana and Ten­nessee.

Work­ers at the plants said 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.

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.

Dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals have been mixed to­gether and washed down floor drains, and plumes of smoke from un­known chem­i­cal re­ac­tions have been re­leased into neigh­bor­hoods, work­ers told the Jour­nal Sen­tinel. Fires have erupted at the plants, foul­ing the air and pos­ing a dan­ger to nearby homes, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion found.

Con­tainer Life Cy­cle Man­age­ment, known as “CLCM,” is a joint ven­ture ma­jor­ity-owned by Ohiobased Greif Inc., an in­dus­trial pack­ag­ing gi­ant. The plants re­fur­bish 55-gal­lon steel drums and large plas­tic chem­i­cal con­tain­ers, clean­ing them for re­use or re­cy­cling. The three Mil­wau­kee-area plants op­er­ate as Mid-Amer­ica Steel Drum.

In­spec­tors from the U.S. trans­porta­tion depart­ment’s Pipe­line and Haz­ardous Ma­te­ri­als Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion as­sessed fines against the com­pany to­tal­ing $31,880 fol­low­ing in­spec­tions in Fe­bru­ary and March.

The agency’s max­i­mum penalty is $78,376 un­less there is a death, se­ri­ous in­jury or sub­stan­tial de­struc­tion of prop­erty. Its av­er­age penalty in fis­cal 2015, the last year for which data was avail­able, was $7,822; the me­dian fine was $4,800 that year, ac­cord­ing to depart­ment data.

Fol­low­ing vis­its to the three Mil­wau­kee-area plants, DOT of­fi­cials launched in­spec­tions into 10 other in­dus­trial drum re­con­di­tion­ing fa­cil­i­ties in eight states, ac­cord­ing to a source fa­mil­iar with the agency’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

It’s the first in­di­ca­tion that reg­u­la­tors are ex­am­in­ing oper­a­tions at a larger swath of the bar­rel re­con­di­tion­ing in­dus­try.

The 13 U.S. fa­cil­i­ties be­ing in­spected make up Earth-Minded Life Cy­cle Ser­vices, a network of in­de­pen­dent drum re­con­di­tion­ing com­pa­nies across the na­tion and the world.

Com­pany prom­ises fixes

In re­sponse to the DOT ac­tions, Greif spokes­woman Deb­bie Crow said the com­pany has ad­dressed all of the agency’s “claimed vi­o­la­tions.”

“The Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion reg­u­larly in­spects fa­cil­i­ties like ours, and CLCM has al­ways been, and will con­tinue to be, will­ing to open its fa­cil­i­ties for in­spec­tion by gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies,” Crow said.

DOT of­fi­cials de­clined to com­ment on the vi­o­la­tions, cit­ing the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Sev­eral elected of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing U.S. Sen. Tammy Bald­win (D-Wis.), have called for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the plants fol­low­ing the Jour­nal Sen­tinel reports.

Fol­low­ing the re­lease of the DOT vi­o­la­tions re­port, Bald­win is­sued a state­ment say­ing, in part, “Our work here is not done and I will con­tinue to de­mand an­swers. We must en­sure these work­places and our com­mu­ni­ties are safe.”

Sur­prise in­spec­tion sought

Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion in­spec­tors were among the group of reg­u­la­tors who vis­ited the plants in the Mil­wau­kee area in Fe­bru­ary and March.

EPA of­fi­cials re­ported that in­spec­tors were forced to wait un­til the com­pany’s at­tor­ney ar­rived and dur­ing the tour in­spec­tors sus­pected they were not see­ing typ­i­cal oper­a­tions, as re­quired by fed­eral law.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in Mil­wau­kee took the un­usual step of ask­ing a fed­eral mag­is­trate judge to ap­prove search war­rants that au­tho­rized sur­prise in­spec­tions.

Dur­ing a later visit, two EPA in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­came ill while in­ter­view­ing res­i­dents around the St. Fran­cis plant, re­port­ing nau­sea, dizzi­ness and dif­fi­culty breath­ing.

The state DNR, which also was on the in­spec­tion, cited the com­pany for 19 vi­o­la­tions, ac­cord­ing to 250 pages of en­force­ment reports re­leased to the Jour­nal Sen­tinel.

The com­pany was cited by the DNR for han­dling haz­ardous waste with­out per­mits; fail­ing to keep re­quired records; mis­rep­re­sent­ing in­for­ma­tion on per­mit ap­pli­ca­tions; send­ing haz­ardous ash to land­fills not per­mit­ted to re­ceive it; and con­tin­u­ing to send pu­trid odors over neigh­bor­hoods three years af­ter sim­i­lar smells were recorded.

The com­pany is­sued a state­ment say­ing the com­pany’s plants have been in­spected by the DNR in the past but such vi­o­la­tions were not noted, adding, “the items as­serted by the DNR at­tempt to im­ple­ment a new reg­u­la­tory frame­work for the re­con­di­tion­ing in­dus­try that has not pre­vi­ously been im­posed by fed­eral or state au­thor­i­ties.”

The com­pany spokes­woman, Crow, has not elab­o­rated on that fur­ther.

En­force­ment meet­ings be­tween the com­pany and DNR were held last month. The case re­mains

open.

DNR spokesman James Dick said the depart­ment con­tin­ues to re­view ad­di­tional doc­u­ments sup­plied by the com­pany.

“We are work­ing closely with U.S. EPA on this mat­ter and con­clu­sion of the en­force­ment as­pects could take some time, but in the in­terim the com­pany has cor­rected or is ac­tively tak­ing steps to cor­rect many of the is­sues that have been iden­ti­fied,” Dick said in a state­ment.

The DOT vi­o­la­tions in­clude inad­e­quate test­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of drums, train­ing vi­o­la­tions, and not no­ti­fy­ing the agency of changes made to pro­cesses that had been ap­proved by the agency, ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ment.

The com­pany has promised to ad­dress the vi­o­la­tions by buy­ing new equip­ment, fil­ing re­vised per­mits and con­duct­ing train­ing, the DOT re­port said.

The DOT in­creased the fines be­cause there are mul­ti­ple counts of the same vi­o­la­tion but then cut about $8,000 be­cause the com­pany took steps to fix the prob­lems.

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