Medical waste company accepted and transported mixed hazardous and biomedical waste
OLYMPIA – After inspections found repeated violations of federal waste regulations, the Washington Department of Ecology issued a $72,000 fine to Stericycle, a medical waste company. Additionally, Ecology has ordered the company to stop accepting hazardous pharmaceutical wastes at its Morton facility.
Ecology has worked with Stericycle to provide technical assistance and performed inspections to ensure proper waste disposal. In 2013, the company agreed to a set of management practices to minimize pharmaceutical waste being received at the Morton facility. But an inspection in November 2014 found these practices were not being followed.
Inspectors found bins of waste pharmaceuticals that federal law designates as hazardous waste at the site. Liquid hazardous waste was found leaking in areas where it could potentially leach into groundwater.
“We are encouraged that Stericycle is taking steps to address these issues, but our inspection found clear violations of federal hazardous waste regulations,” said K Seiler, program manager for Ecology’s Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction program. “It’s essential that the company follows regulations to safely manage hazardous pharmaceutical wastes.”
Federal and state law makes Ecology the lead agency for inspecting waste handling facilities and enforcing federal hazardous waste laws. If federally listed pharmaceuticals are mixed with ordinary medical waste (such as syringes, gauze and gloves), all of the waste is considered to be contaminated and must be handled as hazardous waste. Medical wastes are commonly treated by sterilization in an autoclave and then sent to a landfill; pharmaceutical hazardous waste is typically incinerated.
Many common drugs and pharmaceuticals may be toxic to the environment, and federal law classifies them as hazardous waste when they are discarded. Improper disposal of pharmaceutical waste can contaminate landfills and release toxic materials into the environment.
“This is a complex situation as the wastes in question are packaged at healthcare facilities,” said Jennifer Koenig, Stericycle’s vice president of corporate communication. “We have and will continue to actively work with our healthcare customers as well as the Department of Ecology to provide solutions to minimize improper management of discarded pharmaceuticals.”
The company has the right to appeal the penalty and order to the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board within 30 days.
Bit of a bad time for Stericycle, though perhaps this is not quite as bad as the indictment would imply. This is largely a matter of source segregation. The implication is that is a contractor cannot rely upon its waste producing clients then the contractor must examine those wastes in sufficient detail, or refuse to accept wastes where doubts exist about the quality of source segregation.
But doubt always exists – segregation at source of clinical (medical) wastes is never 100% and the question is, just how far should producers and contractors go.
In cases such as this, it seems both unfair and inequitable that the contractor gets the penalty, with the waste producer being largely overlooked by regulator. This is similar to the situation in the UK, though legal action is infrequent, pressure is placed on waste contractors but without the effort to focus intervention of developing better collaboration between producer and contractor to support better segregation at source.