If Clean Harbors Aragonite were a drunk driver, the Tooele County hazardous waste incinerator would have been taken off the road years ago.
Instead, the plant is an alleged serial violator of its state waste handling permit, racking up monetary penalties nearly every year for a decade — a total of more than $1 million.
And more are on the way.
Fines for violating environmental regulations are intended to deter future bad behavior, but activists are wondering whether the incinerator’s owners are getting the message.
Last month the Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste reached a proposed agreement with Clean Harbors Aragonite LLC to resolve 21 violations documented in 2012. Under a deal that is subject to public comment through Oct. 17, the company will pay $71,155.
While those penalties were being negotiated, the division last April slapped Clean Harbors with a 32-count notice of violation — the company’s tenth since acquiring the plant in 2002 — based on inspections completed in 2013.
Officials with the plant’s corporate parent in Massachusetts downplayed the alleged violations as “administrative in nature.”
“There’s no significant risk to human health or the environment,” said Phillip Retallich, Clean Harbors’ senior vice president for compliance and regulatory affairs. “Our incinerator is state-of-the-art. It always achieves the rigorous compliance requirements for the Clean Air Act’s high-temperature emissions.”
Most of the allegations target reporting errors, failure to properly track and categorize waste, and other record-keeping violations.
“Having an inaccurate waste characterization could lead to mismanagement of the waste, such as placing flammables in places not designed for those hazards or placing incompatibles near each other, or it could result in excessive emissions,” Utah environmental regulators wrote in a report.
Retallich emphasized the firm has never admitted any allegations, but still pays the fines.
While regulators agree the public should not rush to conclude Clean Harbors is a public health menace, environmentalists are less charitable.
“It’s a dizzying array of violations,” said Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “It depicts a facility that isn’t nearly as safe as it should be. It paints a picture of significant hazards for the employees. It’s indicative of an attitude that is way too lax toward the material they are handling.”
Moench noted the records show the Aragonite incinerator processes dangerous materials like asbestos-bearing vermiculite and last year suffered 10 “bypasses,” where potentially carcinogenic smoke is released directly into the atmosphere.
“Those events can be extraordinary in terms of release of toxic emissions,” Moench said.
To be fair, the Aragonite plant’s alleged missteps have never included illegal discharges of pollution or covering up offenses, according to a 19-page compliance history compiled by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
A massive firm providing a variety of industrial services at locations across the nation, Clean Harbors is licensed in Utah to burn numerous hazardous materials, including infectious medical waste, pharmaceuticals and corrosive chemicals.
“Each requires different burn parameters, feed rates and so forth. They stage and batch it just right,” said Scott Anderson, director of DEQ’s hazardous waste division. “It’s a highly technical facility with one of the most prescriptive permits in the nation.”