Tacoma hazardous waste operation hit with $1.9 million state fine for 2018 fire

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A Tacoma hazardous-waste facility has been hit with a $1.9 million state Department of Ecology fine for mismanagement and other problems that led to a 2018 fire.

The fine announced Monday against Stericycle-Tacoma is the fourth largest ever levied by the Ecology Department. It largely results from an investigation into a July 2018 fire ignited by tetrazole, a chemical used to inflate vehicle airbags that state officials said was improperly handled by the facility staff.

“People could have been injured or killed by Stericycle’s mismanagement of these dangerous materials,” said Maia Bellon, Ecology’s director. “They are required by law to meet strict permit conditions. This incident shows a complete disregard for the safety of their employees and nearby communities, and that’s totally unacceptable.”

Stericycle’s operation in Tacoma is the largest private hazardous-waste disposal facility in Washington, according to the Ecology Department.

In a statement released to The Seattle Times, a Stericycle spokesperson said the company “takes environmental health, safety and compliance very seriously,” and has “aggressively pursued improvements” that include investments in new training, new equipment and the hiring of new leadership at the Tacoma facility.

The tetrazole that started the fire arrived in 510 drums that the Ecology Department, in a statement released Monday, said was supposed to be sent to an incinerator. Instead, several dozen of the drums were emptied in preparation for shipping them to a landfill. As the waste was being processed, it ignited and caused a large fire, according to the Ecology Department.

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“Fortunately, the facility’s employees were able to escape unharmed,” said an Ecology Department statement.

State officials said that a follow-up investigation documented a serious lack of training and a failure to follow proper procedures. The company also failed to properly manage the waste left behind by the fire. Then, in November 2018, a second smaller fire occurred in the facility’s shredder when leftover liquid chemicals were allowed into the mix — a violation of an earlier warning letter issued by Ecology Department.

Stericycle-Tacoma operates under the name Burlington Environmental. In additional to the Tacoma facility, Stericyle also has operations in Kent and Morton.

During the past decade, the three Washington operations have received eight other Ecology fines totaling $851,000, according to Andrew Wineke, an Ecology Department spokesman.

Stericycle will have 30 days to appeal the new fine to the Washington State Pollution Control Board.

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