AUGUSTA — Federal officials found three regulatory violations with “major” potential for harm to people and the environment during a 2013 inspection of an Augusta lab, including hazardous waste violations that a Portland attorney descried as “presumptively serious.”

In addition, a federal inspection of the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory found eight violations with “moderate” risk. As a result, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services agreed to pay $100,000 in fines and equipment purchases to settle the claims that it violated state and federal hazardous waste laws. Some of the money will pay for equipment for emergency responders in Augusta and Waterville and the state Department of Environmental Projection.

The equipment includes $25,000 worth of self-contained breathing apparatus bottles, $15,000 for propane heating systems and $9,000 for bulky equipment storage.

A copy of an amended complaint obtained by the Kennebec Journal shows the federal EPA initially sought $193,361 in penalties for 11 violations, which it identified following an inspection Aug. 7-8, 2013, as well as compliance. The dollar figure was later almost halved during settlement negotiations.

“Hazardous waste violations are presumptively serious,” said Kenneth Gray, a Portland attorney with Pierce Atwood who specializes in hazardous substance and hazardous waste management law and who formerly practiced with the EPA. “And then what you have to do is determine which are really paperwork and which really pose a threat to employees or the environment.”

Gray said many of the violations cited in the EPA’s amended complaint look like paperwork problems.

“Higher penalties are assigned to the most serious violations,” he said.

In the state lab’s case, that appears to be the three violations with “major” potential for harm that initially carried penalties of between $32,000 and $46,000.

The major violations were unlicensed treatment of hazardous waste, failure to conduct adequate waste determinations and failure to segregate incompatible wastes.

In describing the potential of failing to properly identify hazardous wastes, the Environmental Protection Agency said, “Such wastes could be stored in uncontrolled areas where emergency responders and facility personnel might not recognize associated hazards.”

The state lab, which performs approximately 140,000 tests per year on human specimens, food, water, wastewater and hazardous materials, was inspected by the EPA for compliance with the Solid Waste Disposal Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

“Routine federal compliance checks in 2013 resulted in some infractions, the nature and scope of which were the subject of disagreement leading to the described settlement,” according to an email from John Martins, public health information officer and director of internal and program communications for DHHS, which operates the lab.

“As noted, the concerns raised as part of the inspection were dealt with thoroughly and appropriately,” Martins said. “The state Health Lab is a complex operation that undergoes continuous quality improvement to ensure efficiency and safety.”

Following the complaint, the state laboratory reviewed and complied with practices and procedures, the EPA news release said. It was unclear whether the lab had been previously cited for violations.

Martins said 53 employees work in the lab, which has been at 221 State St. since the building was erected around the mid-1950s.

“Laboratories present opportunities for excellence,” Gray said. “And because of the number and variety of wastes that you handle in a lab, you would likely find more violations if you find violations.”

He said the definition of what marks a hazardous waste is complicated.

“There are a number of ways you can be a hazardous waste,” Gray said, citing corrosivity, toxicity and ignitability as examples.

The complaint, which was signed by Joanna Jerison, legal enforcement manager in the EPA’s Region 1 office, said the Maine lab analyzes “human specimens, food, water, wastewater and hazardous materials to support federal and state regulatory programs, health care providers, public health protection and the general public.”

As such, it generates hazardous wastes, including those containing sulfuric, nitric, hyrdochloric and phosphoric acids, as well as mercury, acetone, methylene chloride and hexane. The hazardous waste is kept in storage areas in different rooms and labs.

Much of it is disposed of by being neutralized and then dumped into a sink drain that connects through the sewer to the Greater Augusta Utility District’s nearby treatment plant.

According to the EPA, the state Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory “manages approximately 8,190 liters of hazardous waste through neutralization on an annual basis. It also handles 2,500 liters of inorganic metals waste per year.”

Here is a list of the violations cited by the EPA:

• Failure to conduct adequate hazardous waste determinations “for the wastes it neutralized and disposed of into the sink drain.” It says those samples come from the drinking water and environmental samples metals lab, metals analysis lab, drinking water lab, mass spectroscopy lab, volatile organics lab, wet chemistry lab, phosphorous lab, plus wastes generated by inorganic ammonia analysis, fluoride and color analysis among other processes.

• Treatment of hazardous waste in an on-site neutralization unit without a license. The citation says the facility collects wastes in a plastic bucket, tests the pH level and adds solutions to neutralize it before pouring it into the drain. It also says some of those wastes were hazardous because of “toxicity, ignitability or reactivity.” The facility also lacked documentation that quarterly and daily inspections of the elementary neutralization unit had been performed.

• Failure to provide waste training to employees managing hazardous waste. It said the laboratory failed to follow requirements that call for training in regulatory requirements and hazardous waste management procedures to take place within the first six months of employment and then annually and to include emergency procedures.

It said the director and emergency coordinator and the environmental health and safety manager told inspectors that they had not received Resource Conservation and Recovery Act training.

• Failure to maintain a complete personnel training plan.

• Failure to maintain a complete hazardous waste contingency plan “designed to minimize hazards to human health or the environment from fires, explosions, or any unplanned sudden or non-sudden release of hazardous waste or hazardous waste constituents to air, soil or surface water.” However, the citation noted that the facility had a “Safety Manual” with biosafety, chemical hygiene, emergency action and radiation safety plans written in 2012 and a “Spill Control and Clean-up Plan” written in 2003.

The plans also lacked contact information for emergency coordinators and a hierarchy of decision-making, but listed evacuation routes, spill kit and emergency equipment locations.

• Failure to conduct and/or document daily inspections at satellite storage areas and failure to conduct adequate inspections at the Hazardous Waste Storage Area to ensure that the waste is properly stored “and for remedial action if any container is found to be rusting, bulging or leaking or waste is spilled or discharged” among other things. It also notes that the hazardous wastes are not to be stored beyond the 90-day limit.

“EPA inspectors observed 24 containers … that were covered in dirt and dust, which did not allow for adequate inspection.” The report said a lab employee said that open louvers from explosion-proof panels “allowed dirt and moisture into the (hazardous waste storage area).”

• Failure to separate incompatible hazardous waste. The complaint said, “Given the large number of containers of product and hazardous waste stored in the hazardous waste storage area, the potential for a significant fire resulting from the potential mixture of incompatible wastes was heightened.”

• Failure to have adequate aisle space in the hazardous waste storage area.

• Failure to keep containers of hazardous wastes closed. Inspectors found access holes on drums labeled as acid waste, mixed flammables and so on and other containers not completely closed.

• Failure to label containers with the words “hazardous waste”; however, most containers had labels reflecting the content.

• Failure to date containers of hazardous waste (with the date when the accumulation began).

The EPA initially proposed a civil penalty of $193,361 for all 11 violations cited.

The penalties for three violations designated as having major potential for harm were $46,101 for treatment of hazardous waste in an on-site neutralization unit without a license; $38,684 for failure to conduct adequate waste determinations; and $32,915 for failure to segregate incompatible wastes.

The other violations were classified as having “moderate” potential for harm and each carried a penalty of $9,210.

There were also options listed for “quick resolution” with full payment and a timeline for coming into compliance as well as a chance to seek a hearing and to reply to the complaint as well as to request an informal settlement conference, according to the amended complaint, which was signed Sept. 8, 2015.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams


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