Timidity and Fragmented Oversight of Evergreen Oil Plant Hamper Enforcement, Endanger Community, Says Group
New information obtained from emergency responders shows that a July 6th high-temperature leak at the Evergreen Oil re-refining plant in Newark, California involved a hazardous industrial chemical, not just recycled motor oil, as initially reported. Consumer Watchdog called on the chief regulator of the facility to shut the plant down. In a letter sent Tuesday to Debbie Raphael, Director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the consumer organization asked her to convene fragmented regulatory agencies and respond strongly to the latest in a long series of safety violations and accidents at the plant in Newark, CA.
According to Consumer Watchdog, regulators are unclear about who is the lead regulator overseeing the facility, with DTSC’s own enforcers acknowledging they are uncertain of the department’s authority over the whole plant, which processes used motor oil. They were also not aware of what actions other agencies might be taking.
“The DTSC, which should be the leader in any event involving this serial safety violator, seems almost to be looking for reasons not to get involved,” said Consumer Watchdog advocate Liza Tucker. “This is an opportunity for the new director to show strong leadership and creativity in a department that appears to have faltered for years.”
The letter sent Tuesday said in part:
“Such holes in oversight must be filled for the safety of all Californians. Rather than parsing its ability to regulate this portion and not that portion of a toxic waste plant, the DTSC should put itself at the forefront of saying that this is one dangerous accident too many.…. “
“On its face, the idea that the DTSC would have authority to regulate one part of a hazardous waste plant but not another is absurd, particularly when the release on July 6 was hazardous enough to warrant an evacuation, whether the dangerous leak was in the re-refinery area of the plant or not. “
On July 6, a pipe leak spewed a hazardous vapor filled with “heat transfer” chemicals used in re-refining. That triggered an emergency evacuation of the facility. The company and Newark police warned the surrounding community, including a nearby elementary school, to expect a wave of “strong chemical odors” from the leak.
The DTSC said that the leak on July 6 took place in a portion of Evergreen’s facility where recycled oil is processed. A DTSC official stated that the department’s hands are tied because the permit issued to Evergreen does not cover the part of the facility where the leak occurred. According to DTSC, once the waste oil has been partially treated, it is no longer considered a “hazard.” But the heat transfer liquid used to control refining temperatures is hazardous, according to the Alameda County Health and Environmental Agency.
“Evergreen’s long history of repeated and serious safety violations has to come to an end,” said Tucker. “The department has to take control of the situation, including coordination with other regulators, for the sake of the community surrounding the Evergreen plant, and to set an example for all Californians.”
The July 6 accident markeds the latest in a string of problems at the plant that includes a burst pipe and major fire in March 2011 and repeated citations by the DTSC for safety violations and carelessness. Yet the DTSC has let the company off the hook with consent decrees and hand-slap fines for at least a dozen years, said Consumer Watchdog. The group said now is the opportune time for new leadership at the DTSC to rethink its approach to regulating hazardous waste and recycling facilities.