The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined the V.I. Health Department $68,000 for improper handling and storage of hazardous waste at its Knud Hansen facility on St. Thomas and the Charles Harwood Medical Complex on St. Croix.
An EPA inspection found unlabeled and decaying containers of chemicals and pesticides, according to an EPA press release issued Tuesday, and many of the containers were spilled.
Additionally the Health Department failed to properly identify what types of waste were being stored, the EPA said, adding that in some instances the hazardous chemicals had been kept on-site for over 10 years in a state of neglect and decay.
“These are pesticides we use in fogging,” said Health Department spokesman Eunice Bedminster, referring to the department’s practice of fogging to kill mosquitoes.
She said the Health Department hired a consultant, the St. Croix-based Kraal Environmental, to get its facilities into compliance.
While the EPA gave the Health Department approval to use the pesticides for their intended use, Bedminster said some were stored in a wooden building behind the Charles Harwood Complex – and that if there was a fire or an explosion, toxins could be released.
The issue began to unfold in 1998 when the Health Department asked EPA for help in removing and properly disposing of outdated chemical products stored in one of its chemical storage buildings at the Knud Hansen facility.
The EPA responded, removing and properly disposing of the outdated chemicals and pesticides. Over 850 gallons of liquid pesticides and over 1,700 pounds of solid pesticides were removed by the EPA.
Subsequently the EPA strongly recommended that the Health Department develop and follow pesticide storage and handling regulations to avoid a repeat of the environmental hazard.
In 2008, the EPA conducted an inspection of the St. Thomas and St. Croix facilities and, once again, the EPA observed conditions of neglect and sloppy practices. Pesticide products were abandoned and had spilled throughout the facilities.
The EPA reiterated the need for the development of and adherence to a pesticide storage and handling program.
On Sept. 30, 2010, the EPA ordered the Health Department to institute a program to properly manage and dispose of pesticide products. In its press release, the EPA said that since the initial order, the department has properly removed all outdated chemicals, conducted an inventory of the remaining chemicals, properly stored them and created a pesticide storage and handling program.
The EPA conducted follow-up inspections in 2011 and confirmed that the remaining chemicals were properly stored. In March, the EPA issued its final order in this case, requiring the Health Department to pay a $68,000 penalty.
Bedminster said EPA initially set the fine at $107,000 but with help from the local Justice Department was able to negotiate the reduced amount.
Among the hundreds of hazardous chemicals were the neurotoxin pyrethrin, the insecticide chlorpyrifos and calcium hypochlorite, a form of bleach. All are toxic. Federal environmental law requires hazardous chemicals to be stored, handled and disposed of properly to safeguard public health and the environment.
“Pesticides are chemicals that must be handled and stored carefully and properly to protect the health of workers and the people who live near the facilities,” EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck said.
“In this case, the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health repeatedly violated federal hazardous waste laws. Government, especially a health agency, should lead by example and ensure that pesticides and chemicals are properly handled,” Enck said.
Among the violations, the Health Department failed to determine which substances should be considered hazardous waste, as required by law, to ensure that they are managed properly. Correctly determining whether a waste meets the definition of hazardous waste is essential to determining how the waste must be managed.
The Health Department also failed to maintain and operate its facilities in a manner that minimized the possibility of a fire, explosion or accidental release of chemicals.
The press release indicated that pesticides and insecticides are intended to harm or kill pests and are toxic by design. They can be very harmful to people’s health depending on the toxicity of the pesticide and the level of exposure.
Pesticides have been linked to various forms of illnesses in humans, ranging from skin and eye irritation to cancer. Some pesticides may also affect the hormone or endocrine systems.
All chemicals should be handled properly to protect people’s health.