Waste sent to S.C. boomerangs Md. firms, schools, hospitals, agencies learn they have to help clean up the site

December 02, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Environmental Protection AgencyStaff Writer Staff writer William F. Zorzi contributed to this article.

Five years ago, Baltimore school officials did the environmentally correct thing by removing old and unsafe chemicals from high school science laboratories.

Beakers and bottles of acids, bases and solvents were packed in government-approved drums and shipped to a South Carolina company licensed to dispose of hazardous waste.

But Baltimore has since learned the hard way that responsibility for its waste extends to the grave -- and beyond.

The disposal company, Aqua-Tech Environmental Inc., in Greer, S.C., was ordered closed last year because of violations. And now, under a tough federal law, originators of the hazardous waste must share in the cost of cleaning up the site.

About 30 Maryland companies, government agencies, hospitals and colleges must ante up because they all shipped hazardous waste to Aqua-Tech.

For example, the city Board of Estimates has agreed to pay nearly $19,000 toward cleaning up the mess at Aqua-Tech's 60-acre site in Greer.

The Maryland originators of the hazardous waste are not alone. About 600 businesses and institutions from across the country must share in the cleanup cost.

Projections for the price tag are now at nearly $14 million and are rising, according to the companies coordinating the work.

In September 1991, South Carolina and the Environmental Protection Agency shut down Aqua-Tech after finding leaking containers of poisonous and flammable gases lying on the ground or in open sheds.

An inventory has since turned up more than 7,000 drums, about 1,100 gas cylinders and 200 storage tanks. Some containers held deadly mustard and phosgene gas.

"You name it, we have it," said Mary Jo Penick, the EPA's on-scene supervisor of the cleanup. "This site was known for taking things that no one else could handle. . . . Anything bad, we have."

With Aqua-Tech out of business, the EPA has ordered about 100 of the company's biggest clients to begin the cleanup. The list includes military bases, large corporations and major private and public universities.

Among the 100 are SCM Corp. in South Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins hospital and medical school.

"Obviously we were very surprised when we received notice about this site," said Stuart Breslow, SCM's assistant general counsel. The company shipped 97 drums of black ash residue from its colors and silica plant on Broening Highway in 1987 and 1988, he said, but only after checking to be sure that Aqua-Tech was licensed to dispose of such wastes.

Hopkins shipped leftover laboratory chemicals to Aqua-Tech from 1987 through 1989, according to spokesman Dennis O'Shea.

Hopkins officials dispute the EPA's figures on the amount of waste for which Hopkins is responsible, Mr. O'Shea said, but the institution already has paid $106,000 as a down payment on its share of the cleanup cost.

The spokesmen for SCM and Hopkins contend that South Carolina is to blame for not regulating Aqua-Tech more closely.

"We received certificates of destruction [for the waste]," said Mr. O'Shea.

"We had all the assurances we could, short of sending a man down there with each truckload."

There is plenty of blame to go around, counters J. Keith Lindler, manager of site engineering for South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control. The state and EPA had cited Aqua-Tech and its predecessor company at least five times since 1981 for improper storage and disposal of hazardous wastes at the former municipal landfill.

"If any of [the originators] had visited the site, they probably would not have sent waste there," he said.

After the shutdown, Aqua-Tech tried but failed to get protection from its creditors in bankruptcy court. The firm is in violation of EPA's order to help pay for cleaning up the site, an EPA attorney said.

Moreover, the FBI and the state of South Carolina have launched an investigation to determine if criminal charges are warranted, according to Rob Waizenhofer, a bureau spokesman in Columbia, S.C.

Under federal law, all "generators" of toxic materials are legally responsible for them, even if the originators have paid companies licensed by the government to transport, store and dispose of the hazardous wastes.

"It's a harsh law," said Michael Broumberg, manager of hazardous waste operations for the University of Maryland.

"I've been in this business for 15 years, and it's become impossible. You cannot help but get in trouble."

The university has been billed $106,248 -- the cost of removing 17 gas cylinders from Aqua-Tech's site. The cylinders came from the College Park campus and contained gases used in research and teaching, including helium, oxygen, ammonia and chlorine, Mr. Broumberg said.

The final cost of the cleanup is unknown.

Once all the drums and cylinders are removed, sometime next spring, a study will be made of soil and ground water contamination at the site.

The cost of that additional cleanup also would be paid by the originators of hazardous waste.

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