Two federal inspectors became ill earlier this year while investigating a chain of industrial barrel refurbishing plants in Wisconsin.
One month earlier, other inspectors were inside the plants but said they didn’t get to see regular activities as required by law. Instead, they said, it appeared the company was staging operations to make it look like regulations were being followed.
Concerned the company engaged in a cover-up and the plant’s true operations presented a risk to residents, federal prosecutors asked a federal magistrate judge to approve search warrants authorizing surprise inspections to collect samples. The judge approved them in early May.
That move came after a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation in February uncovered dangerous working conditions and environmental problems at the plants and three others in Arkansas, Indiana and Tennessee, all part of the chain. The facilities are operated by Container Life Cycle Management (CLCM), a joint venture majority owned by industrial packaging giant Greif Inc.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies sent inspectors to the CLCM Mid-America Steel Drum plants in St. Francis, Oak Creek and Milwaukee a short time later.
New details of the EPA inspections are outlined in reports, emails and other documents made public in the warrants filed by the EPA in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee in May.
In seeking warrants to do surprise inspections, EPA officials cited the Journal Sentinel investigation as well as previous environmental violations.
The plants refurbish 55-gallon metal drums and large plastic totes, cleaning them out for future use or to recycle them. The drums and totes are supposed to arrive empty, but they routinely come in “heavy,” with a significant amount of chemicals remaining inside, according to documents and workers.
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 said. Fires have erupted at the plants, fouling the air and posing a danger to nearby homes, the investigation found.
The Journal Sentinel findings were the result of 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.
Greif spokeswoman Debbie Crow said the company has not yet received findings from the EPA and the company “will work with them to remedy any issues as they arise.”
EPA officials would not comment on the ongoing investigation other than to say they don’t yet have results from samples of material that were collected during the inspections.
Federal and state regulators inspected the plants in Milwaukee shortly after the Journal Sentinel investigation.
The inspectors from the EPA, U.S. Department of Transportation and Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources were trying to determine if there were violations of federal hazardous waste handling and emissions laws at the plants.
Normal Operation Appear Blocked
At each plant, the regulators said, there were indications they were not seeing typical operations, which they are supposed to be able to see under the law.
Inspectors noted they were barred from entering the plants until a company attorney arrived.
Barrels appeared to have been selected to avoid any containing hazardous waste, they said. Containers had new-looking white labels on them with the words “non-regulated waste.” And a worker operating a furnace at one plant happened to be “on break” during the inspection, according to court documents.
Operations “appeared to EPA inspectors to be ‘staged’ to create the appearance of compliance with applicable environmental regulations,” documents said.
Even with those efforts, the inspectors spotted possible violations of the law: Workers were guessing by “feel” if a barrel contained chemicals; fumes wafted from some barrels; possibly harmful waste was streaming down a storm drain; and records required by law to be kept were missing.
And by the company’s own admission, one of the facilities was dealing with hazardous waste without a permit. The company’s attorney wrote in a letter after the inspection the company is now applying for a hazardous waste permit.
“This suggests a failure in the past to characterize properly wastes present at this facility,” the warrant application said.
Inspectors arrived at the plant in the 2300 block of W. Cornell St. the morning of Feb. 24. After waiting for the lawyer to arrive, the inspectors entered the plant to find that operation was shut down, so there was little to observe.
Four days later, the inspectors went to the St. Francis plant. They had to wait an hour while the company called its lawyer to appear.
The inspectors believed the drums being processed on that day were “cherry-picked” so they did not include any hazardous waste. But inspectors also saw barrels fuming at the St. Francis plant, indicating that drums were not emptied.
An inspector went to the roof to examine the smokestack scrubber, which is designed to clean the exhaust gas as it leaves the plant. He discovered fluid coming off the scrubber was going into a pipe and then a storm drain.
“The reason the system was set up to leak in this way was not made clear during the inspection,” the inspection report said.
At the Oak Creek inspection on March 2, inspectors identified several areas of concern. Workers used metal blades to cut the drums containing unknown and potentially flammable chemicals, creating a risk of explosion.
EPA investigators Aaron Price and Maureen O’Neill interviewed several residents in their homes, “where we believe the remnants of the exhaust had accumulated for years in the carpet and upholstery.”
Neighbors Health Issues
Residents reported health complaints including dizziness, itching, watery eyes, rashes on exposed skin, nausea, lymphoma, vitamin D issues, cardiovascular disease and throat cancer, according to documents.
Price and O’Neill both reported that they felt sick after being in the neighborhood around St. Francis plant. O’Neill said her tongue swelled, her throat constricted and she was suffering from “unbearable” throbbing and numbness in her hands and feet.
She asked for Benadryl at the front desk of her hotel that night. The staff offered to take her to a hospital or pharmacy. A hotel driver took her to get an antihistamine. The swelling went down the next day but the pain in the hands and feet persisted until she left the assignment.
Price, too, reported feeling ill with headaches, dizziness and breathing difficulty, nausea, sleep difficulty and trouble focusing.
A neighbor of the plant told Price and O’Neill the smell from the plant’s emissions was strong enough that he could taste it. He couldn’t get away from it, even in his house with the doors and windows closed.
A secretary at Willow Glen Elementary School, which is a half-mile south of the plant, called the Fire Department to investigate one day this year because the plant’s odor was so strong in the school.