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Another Fine Mess For City Hall

City of Buffalo faces the prospect of a $112,500 fine for its handling of hazardous waste and spent lamps

Buffalo is facing more than $100,000 in fines because of its mishandling of hazardous materials that put city employees and neighborhood residents at risk of everything from mercury poisoning to chemical explosions.

Some of the problems go back decades and were first brought to light in 2008 when inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency learned city employees and tenants of city-owned buildings had been throwing spent lamps, which can contain mercury, into the trash rather than safely disposing of them. Exposure to mercury can damage the central nervous system and cause breathing problems and memory impairment, especially in children.

That led to an agreement in April 2011 between Buffalo and the EPA that committed the city to properly manage hazardous waste. But just five months later, EPA inspectors found nearly a ton of ignitable paints, thinners and solvents stored in hundreds of containers, many corroded and leaking, at the city’s mechanical services building at 1326 Seneca St. EPA inspectors also found hundreds of spent lamps, some broken, haphazardly stored in various buildings, including City Hall and the Buffalo Science Museum.

The mechanical services building, between Harrison and Lester streets, is a stone’s throw from about 40 homes.

Art Robinson, president of Seneca Babcock Block Club, said no one in the neighborhood was aware of the danger.

“The stuff should have never been stored there to begin with,” he said. “It’s like a ticking bomb.”

Federal environmental officials agreed.

“This could have led to a fire or explosion,” an EPA record concluded.

Buffalo—unlike Erie County and the University at Buffalo, to give two examples—does not have a staffed office that deals with environmental affairs. That’s despite the presence of 27 city-owned facilities that generate hazardous waste ranging from discarded lamps that could leak mercury if broken to old paint, used oil and cleaning fluids that could ignite if exposed to flame.

Local governments often have an environmental or health officer who manages hazardous waste and understands the regulations, said Paul Abernathy of the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers.

“Somebody dropped the ball there,” he said of Buffalo.

David Hornung, the city’s former principal engineer, told Investigative Post that the mishandling of spent lamps and hazardous waste was the result of a “lack of coordination.”

“There was never any malicious intent to deliberately put anyone at risk or damage the environment,” he said.

Strike One

EPA inspectors speculated in September 2008 that city employees and tenants of city buildings had not been safely managing a large number of spent lamps. Municipalities can, by law, temporarily store spent lamps as long as they are labeled in secure containers.

They become hazardous waste once broken, however. Abernathy said broken bulbs release mercury vapor that, while undetectable by sight or smell, looks like a trail of cigarette smoke under special lighting.

“It doesn’t take much breathing that in before you can accumulate that stuff, and if you are exposed to broken light bulbs a lot you can get some really serious problems,” he said.

City officials, however, did not treat the spent lamps with much care. In fact, Hornung is quoted in the documents telling EPA officials: “I won’t lie to you, we put a lot of the bulbs in the dumpster.”

Public Works Commissioner Steve Stepniak did not know whether the city had a management plan for spent lamps, according to EPA records. City officials also couldn’t document for EPA inspectors the types and quantities of lamps.

Stepniak ordered tenants and employees to stop throwing away spent lamps until he could review procedures and hire a recycling firm, according to EPA documents. He would later write two letters to the EPA in February 2009 to inform them of the “strides” the city had made to rectify the problems and that he was in the final stages of hiring a contractor.

But, 14 months later, city officials admitted there was no management plan for spent lamps and hazardous waste. The violations occurred because of “a lack of knowledge” of state and federal regulations, city officials told the EPA.

Subsequently, the EPA filed a notice of violation against the city for the improper handling and management of spent lamps “which could threaten human health or the environment.”

The case dragged on for two more years because city officials were slow to provide the EPA documentation.

And the worst was yet to come.

Strike Two

Finally, city officials signed a consent order with the EPA on April 13, 2011, that assured them that the situation was under control. The EPA opted to not fine the city.

The EPA conducted more inspections in September 2011 and found out the situation in fact, was not under control.

An inspection of six city-owned sites found hundreds of spent lamps and nearly a ton of waste paints, thinners and solvents in the Seneca Street mechanical services facility.

The EPA wrote: “many of these containers appeared to have been stored for extensive periods of time, had unreadable or no labels to identify their contents, were extremely corroded and some had already leaked their contents, and most appeared to have been stored in lieu of disposal.”

One source with knowledge of the situation said the ignitable waste at the Seneca Street facility had been stored and forgotten about for decades.

The thought of this upset a mother whose home is just a few feet away.

“They put my family at risk,” said Rita Carluccio, who has six children, six grandchildren, two dogs and a cat. “I think that’s pretty crappy.”

In addition, EPA records show inspectors found:

• Hundreds of spent fluorescent lamps scattered in the basement of City Hall, in the Seneca Street building and at the Buffalo Museum of Science. None were labeled or stored safely. In some instances, the spent lamps had busted.

• Spent mercury lamps, typically used to light stadiums and gyms, were scattered in the hallways of the building on Seneca Street. None were labeled or stored safely.

• Dozens of lead-containing cathode ray tubes used in televisions and computer screens were haphazardly stored in multiple locations.

As a result, the EPA issued a new notice of violation, “because the wastes included paints, solvents and mercury containing spent lamps and the number of waste containers and spent lamps was high, the potential contamination from such wastes was serious.”

In addition, the EPA cited the city for failing to comply with the 2011 consent order.

Although the city supplied the EPA with a manifest to prove the hazardous waste had been hauled away, there is no evidence that a management plan is yet in place. Stepniak refused five interview requests and his department has not provided documents requested May 23 under the state Freedom of Information Law.

Department not staffed

Although the City Charter includes a division of environmental affairs, the office has not been staffed for most of the past decade. The division was not budgeted from 2005 to 2008.

Mayor Byron Brown had announced in 2010 that he would fill the director position, but it took two years before Nadine Marrero was hired. She resigned in February 2013, less than a year into the job. Even so, it appears the job focused more on development and planning than the handling of hazardous materials.

The city’s new recycling coordinator appears to have taken on most of the job duties involving hazardous waste compliance, sources said.

The city’s approach is in stark contrast to how the University at Buffalo handles hazardous wastes and spent lamps.

Anthony Oswald, the university’s hazardous materials manager, can tick off the regulations by memory. He knows how long he can store spent lamps and hazardous waste, and the frequency that 55-gallon drums are inspected for leaks.

His mastery of the subject matter underscores the importance of having a point person who manages hazardous waste. He did not address the city’s problems, but rather discussed how UB handles waste.

Spent lamps are in sturdy containers clearly marked until a private contractor hauls them off for recycling, he said. Drums of hazardous waste are inspected weekly and shipped off campus within 90 days.

“If they are leaking we take immediate steps to fix the leak,” he said. “You just can’t let it sit there.”

While UB’s operation hums along, the EPA’s monitoring of the city remains ongoing—six years and counting.

City employees have undergone training on hazardous waste regulations, sources said, but that doesn’t mean all the problems have been solved. For example, city employees earlier this year cleared out about 700 gallons of old paints and solvents out of City Hall.

In the meantime, a potential fine of up to $112,500 hangs over the city.

Jamie Sarvis, a mother of a 3-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son who all live across the street from the mechanical services building on Seneca Street, said she is glad the threat is gone.

“It’s crazy to know I was that close to something that was a danger to me and my family,” she said.

Dan Telvock is a reporter for Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York. Visit investigativepost.org daily for investigations, analyses, blog posts, and the latest from Tom Toles.

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