Oakland Waste Operation Suspended

Janine DeFao, SF Chronicle

Bins
of syringes, tissue left untreated for weeks, state officials say

Oakland, California –
State health officials temporarily shut down an Oakland medical waste
incinerator yesterday after finding hundreds of barrels of waste
that had sat untreated for weeks.

The bins of syringes, tissue samples and other waste at
Integrated Environmental Systems pose no public health threat, officials said,
but the violations were serious enough to warrant an unprecedented 30-day
suspension of its permit.

The facility, the only commercial medical waste incinerator
in the state, has been under fire for months from community and environmental
groups that contend that it emits dioxin and other dangerous compounds. The
company denies the allegation.

Under the suspension, the firm will be allowed to burn only the backlog of waste
at its High Street plant. New waste shipments from area
hospitals and medical facilities will be sent to an IES operation
in Southern California or to its out-of-state
competitors.

"We've taken strong action to suspend their permit," said Jack
McGurk, chief of the environmental branch of the California Department of
Health Services. "It's something they've got to get taken care of."

Company spokesman Jay Silverberg said IES is cooperating with state
inspectors to "ensure the backlog of waste is
addressed" and "to put into place plans and procedures to ensure this
situation does not occur again."

In addition, officials with the California Division of Occupational Safety
and Health confirmed that they opened an investigation of worker safety
conditions on Monday, based on an employee complaint. The Bay Area Air Quality
Management District, which regulates the incinerator's emissions, also issued
violations this week against IES for not properly containing its ash.

State law requires that medical waste be treated — either
through incineration, steam sterilization or microwaving — within one week.
IES burns most of its waste but also has a microwave unit.

"A lot of the waste is organic matter," McGurk
said. "It's blood. It's tissue. The bacteria can start growing, and it
starts smelling. We don't want it in a hospital nor within the community."

A May 23 state inspection of IES found 3,000 barrels of waste,
half of which were more than a week old, McGurk said. Some bins, which were
stacked inside IES buildings and trucks, had been there for three weeks.

State officials ordered IES to clear the backlog, but by June 4, the company
had failed to do so.

As more waste shipments came in, "they were catching
up only to get behind again," McGurk said.

He said the backlog occurred because one of the plant's two incinerators and
its microwave unit were shut down for repairs, but IES "had not made plans
to have waste treated somewhere else. It was poor management
oversight."

Silverberg said most of the outdated barrels have since been treated.

IES critics said the violations give them more ammunition in their fight to
force the company to switch from incineration to other waste-treatment
techniques they believe are safer. State law, however, requires that some types
of medical waste, including pathological waste
and chemotherapy remnants, be incinerated.

"It's emblematic of the fact that the company is just not running a
tight ship," said Michael Green, executive director of the Center for
Environmental Health in Oakland.
"A company that allows 3,000 barrels of medical waste to
back up on its property is not the kind of company I want to be operating
(incineration) technology that if not operated properly is going to be emitting
dioxin."

IES has said its emissions are far below state and federal mandates for
dioxin, metals and other dangerous compounds.

Health department officials said the company could face additional fines and
penalties and could have its permit revoked if it does not comply with waste-disposal
rules. McGurk said that the last time the health department temporarily suspended
a medical waste facility's permit was in 1997 at a Southern California plant.

 

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