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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.
In a few instances, infectious material was found stored too long without refrigeration, which could allow pressure to build up in the containers and with a subsequent discharge of "highly dangerous waste."
Inspectors also found elevated levels of oxygen in a tank farm's ventilation system, which could lead to an explosion.
On Thursday, the division's latest stipulated settlement with Clean Harbors comes before the Utah Solid and Hazardous Waste Control Board, which will be asked to approve it at its next meeting in November.
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."
That waste-handling permit, most recently renewed two years ago, holds countless provisions and inspectors are on site every other week.
Accordingly, there are plenty of opportunities for employees to make mistakes and for inspectors to catch them.
"You go to any facility in the country and if you put it under the same scrutiny we put this company under, you will find violations," Anderson said. "Our formal inspections are two weeks long, but these are [violations] found over the course of a year. When you add them together, it's a bigger penalty. That's an artifact of how we do our business."
The Aragonite incinerator has operated largely under environmental groups' radar since opening in 1991, while other Utah incinerators dominate headlines and face constant criticism.
With a capacity of 75,000 tons, the plant can burn 10 times the waste as the controversial Stericyle medical waste incinerator, which handles far less hazardous stuff.
But Clean Harbors operates in the empty desert 75 miles west of the Wasatch Front, while Stericycle is surrounded by a new North Salt Lake subdivision. And its alleged violations, while numerous, are not nearly as serious as the state's pending allegations against Stericycle of rigged stack tests and violations of emissions limits.
firstname.lastname@example.org Clean Harbors Aragonite
Westinghouse opened this hazardous waste incinerator 100 miles west of Salt Lake City in 1991. Massachusetts-based Clean Harbors acquired the plant in 2002. Nearly every year since, the state has cited the operator for numerous violations of its waste-handling permit. The following are the negotiated penalties, totalling more than $1 million, Clean Harbors agreed to pay.