The Stericycle hazardous waste facility in Tacoma has agreed to settle $2.2 million in penalties issued in 2019 by the Washington Department of Ecology. The facility, formerly owned by Stericycle, has since changed ownership and is now a Clean Earth company. It is one of two commercial businesses in the state that collect, manage and dispose of hazardous waste generated by households, industries and businesses.
In 2018, a warehouse fire erupted at the tideflats facility after the company mismanaged its hazardous waste. That fire and other compliance issues at the same location led to the penalty, which the company appealed in late 2019. The settlement agreement effectively ends the appeal process.
“It’s unacceptable for any business to put its workers, the public and the environment in serious danger,” said Ecology Director Laura Watson. “The company must meet all training and operational commitments in the settlement to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
According to the settlement’s terms, Stericycle has agreed to pay the amount in full and the current operator will comply with new permit modifications that Ecology included to help prevent further violations. These permit changes – such as requiring management to certify crucial tests done while processing wastes and ensuring employees have the training they need to work safely – will help the company do a better job evaluating dangerous wastes before they arrive at the facility.
“It is important to point out that these violations occurred almost two years prior to our ownership of the facility and run contrary to our vision, mission and shared values,” said Averil Rance, Clean Earth’s Senior Vice President of Environmental Health and Safety. “We are confident that, since our acquisition two months ago, the facility has put in place robust compliance, governance, safety and environmental procedures to prevent another unfortunate incident from taking place.”
In July 2018, several drums of tetrazole (a hazardous powdered chemical used in vehicle airbags) caught fire as it was being processed. Had it not ignited at the facility, the highly reactive tetrazole waste would have been shipped through communities by rail. After the fire, inspectors discovered that the company failed to properly designate and manage the waste and residue left by the fire. Later that year, another fire in the facility’s shredder ignited after Stericycle allowed containers with leftover liquid chemicals to mix. Ecology inspectors had issued a compliance letter to the company in 2017 specifically warning against allowing liquids to enter the shredder. Fortunately, no employees were harmed in either incident, however there was concern about potentially sensitive populations downwind of the fire being adversely affected.
By settling the case, the state avoids costly future litigation and can use the penalty funds to further enhance Ecology’s work.