USA TODAY US Edition
Chemicals in barrels endanger communities,
Company’s unsafe practices place Milwaukee workers, neighborhood at risk
Nothing on the outside of the industrial building in Milwaukee offers any clue about what’s going on inside.
The sign that says “Mid America IBC” doesn’t suggest “hazard.”
Residents living in the modest homes across the street would have no way to know that the facility — which recycles and refurbishes large chemical containers — was endangering workers in the plant and exposing the neighborhood to risk. The company that operates the facility also operates a container-reconditioning facility in Memphis.
Residents near the Milwaukee facility had no way to hear what the man inside was saying.
It was Oct. 6, 2015, and the man — whose name is Steele Johns — was escorting a team of safety consultants through the plant in a small industrial stretch on Milwaukee’s north side.
The advisers were brought in for a confidential consultation to help the company comply with federal safety regulations and minimize insurance liabilities.
Johns is a safety manager for a division of Ohio-based Greif Inc., a $3.3 billion industrial packaging company that entered the business of reconditioning plastic chemical containers and 55-gallon steel drums in 2010. He was telling the consultants he was extremely worried about several things, especially the practice of mixing unknown chemicals together in a collection drum.
“When you look at the hazard potential here, they could blow up and kill eight people in a heartbeat,” Johns said.
It wasn’t a hypothetical threat. A drum exploded in the face of a worker at another Milwaukee area plant, now a sister facility of the Milwaukee operation where Johns was meeting with the consultants.
The worker, Charles Duggan, was doing what he did most every day: Capping a drum full of unknown chemicals. He was killed almost instantly. He was 23.
Yes, that was a long time ago — 1984. What’s unsettling, Johns told the consultants, is the dangerous procedures had not changed. And workers were still getting injured.
“You’d think that this would be a big priority to never, ever, ever, ever, ever do that again,” he said. “But it’s not. And that’s the frightening part.”
The Milwaukee plant was among six drum reconditioning facilities Johns and the consultants were examining: three Mid-America Steel Drum plants in the Milwaukee area, plus others in Indianapolis, Memphis and Arkadelphia, Ark.
All are operated by a joint venture called Container Life Cycle Management — or “Click’m.” Greif is the majority owner of CLCM, which employs about 270 and has also assembled a network of independent reconditioners spanning more than two dozen cities across the United States, Canada and Europe.
Johns told the consultants that he had been trying to make safety improvements at the CLCM facilities for several years but that corporate executives and plant managers had not taken him seriously.
He confided in the consultants his fear of what could easily happen as employees commingled random chemicals from containers brought in for scrapping or reconditioning.
“One of these days ... that mother is going to blow up,” he said of a collection container. “And when that happens, everybody is going to be sorry.”
What Johns didn’t know was that one of the safety consultants was recording the conversation and would later become a whistle-blower. PROBLEMS IN FOUR STATES Greif Inc. is headquartered on a park-like campus in Delaware, Ohio, just north of Columbus.
For most of its history, the company focused on barrel and drum manufacturing. In 2010, it expanded into the drum recycling and reconditioning business, of- fering its customers the ability to “cut their environmental impact.”
Greif established a majority ownership in CLCM, a limited liability company formed through joint ventures with the six drum reconditioners. And it launched EarthMinded Life Cycle Services, a network of independent reconditioners across the world.
As companies joined EarthMinded, Greif praised them for their expertise and environmental practices. But an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uncovered problems with Greif ’s CLCM facilities in four states and other drum reconditioning operations nationwide whose practices have posed risks to workers and the environment.
Dangerous chemicals have been washed down floor drains, plumes of smoke from unknown chemical reactions have been released into neighborhoods and fires have erupted at the plants, fouling the air and posing a danger to nearby homes, the investi- gation found.
Government agencies entrusted with protecting workers and the public have been ineffective, significantly reducing fines and failing to address egregious hazards. Such has been the case for decades, long before Greif entered the business.
The Journal Sentinel findings are based on 16 hours of audio recordings of managers and workers inside the plants; hundreds of pages of documents, including safety audits from private consultants, injury reports, federal and state regulatory records, lawsuits and fire investigations; and interviews with recent workers and industry experts. Greif executives told the Jour
nal Sentinel they recognized the CLCM facilities had “lacked compliance with Greif ’s global safety standards.” But they said the company had since ordered “significant changes” to address operational and safety issues, spending $1 million on improvements last year. The company also said it fired a manager at the Milwaukee plant for “repeated policy violations.”
Greif declined requests for interviews. In response to written questions, the company wrote that the Journal Sentinel’s findings were outdated and that many improvements to the plants were made in 2016. Greif provided the Journal Sen
tinel with a statement from Johns, who said he was unaware he was being recorded by the whistle-blower and the information he provided to the safety consultants was “open” and “factual” so they could identify opportunities for improvement.
Greif said its employees are well trained and know the proper procedures for dealing with unlabeled and mislabeled drums.
Companies across the globe use 55-gallon steel drums and large plastic chemical containers, called totes, to move everything from antifreeze to aftershave.
The trouble starts before used containers arrive at the reconditioning plants.
By federal regulation, drums are considered “empty” if they contain an inch or less of hazardous residue that cannot be removed by pouring, pumping or other normal means, such as being turned upside down. The 1inch rule is aimed at accommodating gooey, viscous substances that are difficult to remove.
Some companies knowingly ship containers with an inch of liquid to avoid hazardous waste disposal costs, industry insiders say.
At times, companies disregard the rules altogether and send refurbishing plants what industry insiders refer to as “heavies.”
Reconditioning plants are supposed to refuse heavies and have them sent back to the companies that shipped them — and Greif officials maintain this is what they do.
Most reconditioning plants are not permitted or equipped to handle hazardous waste from customers. But the Journal Senti
nel found CLCM plants haven’t always returned the barrels. When trucks roll up to the docks with a few heavies mixed in the load, workers have typically gone ahead and processed them, according to interviews with workers and audio recordings from the whistle-blower.
A supervisor at a plant in Memphis — recorded in September — said the only time his team rejects a drum is if it’s too heavy for anybody to pick up and move.
“We get some that are, you know, more than an inch that we just, you know, pick up together and dump it up in a tote, let it drain ... whatever,” the supervisor said.
OSHA documents from 2010 confirmed “heavies” were getting into the Indianapolis plant.
Federal inspectors who visited the facility “observed multiple totes” with as much as 3 inches of liquid. Inspectors found that a “large percentage” of the chemicals in the plant were toxic liquids such as hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acids, sodium hydroxide, ammonia, diacetyl, acetone, benzene, nickel and formaldehyde. LABELS OLD OR ILLEGIBLE John Mateljan worked at the Milwaukee plant in 2015. His primary job was to cut up plastic containers for scrapping. Before he cut them, he poured off whatever chemicals were left into a 275-gallon collection container.
Workers didn’t separate corrosives from flammables, acids from bases, or take enough precautions to prevent volatile chemical reactions, according to Mateljan. Most of the time, he said, workers had no idea what chemicals they were handling.
Often the labels were old or illegible. In some cases, the drums weren’t labeled at all. Safety experts say unlabeled containers with unknown chemicals should always be treated as hazardous.
Paul Gantt is a Californiabased hazardous materials specialist who trains corporate safety managers, government regulators and others on the proper handling of chemicals.
Gantt said the drum recycling business is immensely dangerous given the number of chemical variables in the hands of people who often don’t understand the full spectrum of chemistry.
“That’s nuts,” he said. “You’re creating a chemical brew; you really don’t know the full potential.” He added, “We’re lucky more than we are safe. You might have 1,000 reactions that didn’t blow up a drum, but that was luck. What are we doing to ensure we are safe?”
It’s OK to assume that something is dangerous. It’s never OK to assume that something is safe, said Tony Rieck, president and CEO of T.R. Consulting Group in Colorado Springs, Colo.
But that wasn’t the approach at the Milwaukee plant, according to some of the workers.
Mateljan, 29, recalled one instance when he poured liquid from a drum into the collection container and a horrible smelling orange cloud filled the plant.
“I was like, ‘What the hell is going on in here?’ ” he told the Journal Sentinel. The workers went outside while the air cleared, he said. ‘INVADED MY WHOLE LIFE’ Will Kramer didn’t decide to become a whistle-blower overnight.
For more than six years as a safety consultant, he heard executives make jokes when people were hurt. He saw others falsify safety plans. “I couldn’t leave it at the office,” Kramer said. “It invaded my whole life.”
Kramer said he couldn’t ignore what he saw in the CLCM plants, so one day he secretly hit “record” on his iPhone.
He eventually became a whistle-blower and last year filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, detailing his findings and alleging that Greif had misled investors by not disclosing all its environmental risks.