It’s common these days to talk about “toxic workplaces.” This typically means a place of employment that has backstabbing or neurotic co-workers, or a corporate culture that sacrifices human well-being at the altar of the bottom line. It can be an important issue, for sure. However, I often chuckle when I hear “toxic” bandied about in people’s conversations about their jobs.
I think: “you want toxic? I’ll show you toxic!”
Allow me to give you a glimpse into the world of hazardous waste management, from a personal journey. These places collect and process hazardous chemicals and byproducts from industry and the public—if your community is lucky enough to have a household hazardous waste program (if it doesn’t, it just goes straight into your waterstream!).
I dropped out of Humboldt State University in California in 1989. My dad’s friend got me a job working at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (it has the lyrical acronym SONGS). I was a rigging inspector, and didn’t deal with radioactive material. However, as part of my training, I took a 40-hour course on hazardous waste. This was shortly before the subcontractor I worked for had their contract terminated in 1993, after one of the operating units shut down permanently.
After spending time living in a dumpy flat on the Panhandle in San Francisco, I relocated to Seattle. I slept on the floor of my ex-girlfriend’s apartment for a few weeks, before getting an affordable studio of my own. With my hazardous waste certification, I found a job for a company called Burlington Environmental. They had a hazardous waste “Treatment Storage and Disposal” facility in the Georgetown neighborhood of South Seattle. I was to work swing shift: 3-11:30 p.m. I was initially paid about $8 an hour.
I didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into. I was issued my “personal protective equipment:” industrial coveralls, heavy-duty rain gear, PVC gloves, firemen’s steel-toed boots, and a full-face air purifying respirator with organic-vapor cartridges.
My first job was working the “can crush machine.” This is basically a conveyor device with a large ram moving up and down on it. It was a two-person operation. One person punctured cans of paint and other chemicals with a miner’s pick, then tossed the can sideways onto the conveyor. The ram smashed the can and forced out the liquid. The other person had the fun task of collecting the cans and setting them up on a “drip tray” to more fully empty, while a noxious brew of liquid came down the ramp like a chemical stream, into waiting drums. It was all done out in the open, exposed to the weather.
Most of the material in this task involved paint and other flammable liquids. They usually had “Volatile Organic Compounds,” or VOCs: benzene, toluene, and xylene, to name just a few. Some VOCs are known carcinogens, and others damage the liver and other organs (1). Their volatility means they can get in the body easily through breathing them. Hence my full-face respirator became a very important ally in my job.
We had to take cans out of 55-gallon drums. Processing 30-40 drums in one shift was considered acceptable. 40-50 was better. Considering that one 5-gallon bucket of paint can weigh 50 pounds, it was incredibly labor-intensive. From a worker viewpoint, drums from household hazardous waste (or HHW) “collection events” were considered less toxic than drums from industry. HHW drum processing yielded a sludgy brownish liquid that was more or less blended together. Unfortunately, HHW drums tended to have lots of little containers—quarts and pints of oil based paints, for example. They therefore took much longer to process.
Drums from industrial customers tended to go more quickly. This was offset by the fact they were usually far more toxic. Liquids from these drums often didn’t co-mingle. There were plenty of shocking pinks, baby blues, and fluorescent greens. The process could be strangely beautiful, but you knew that your respirator was all that kept you from seriously harming your body when you got close. Boeing was our biggest industrial customer, and they cranked out some amazing wastes—both in color and toxicity.
Industrial drums also tended to behave more badly when incompatible chemicals were placed inside. I took the ring off a drum, and had the lid blow 30 feet in the air. Fortunately I didn’t have my head over the drum, and wasn’t hurt. I never found out what chemicals contributed to this incident. Isocyanates were sometimes mistakenly put in the can crusher. They would almost instantly solidify all the liquid in the machine. We would have to spend precious time digging out the chunks, reducing our production amounts and upsetting the shift supervisor.
This wasn’t the end of the road for these chemicals. They were shipped off via railcar, boxcar, bulk tanker trucks, and in drums to final disposal locations. A popular option was cement kilns that had the legal permission to use hazardous waste as a fuel source. Other materials ended up at hazardous waste incinerators. These choices were, and are, considered preferable to landfill, but certainly weren’t, and aren’t, perfect solutions.
Burlington’s facility in Georgetown processed many other chemicals as well: pesticides, cyanide from plating operations, PCB wastes, etc. When I started work there, the entire facility had a very thick concrete slab on the ground. However, it was a relatively new feature. This facility had been processing paint and other chemicals for over 50 years, under various owners. During that time, underground storage tanks had leaked and been dug up, and chemicals had eaten through permeable surfaces to contaminate the groundwater below. The company that bought out Burlington, PSC, began spending a lot of money trying to contain this plume. The Georgetown facility is now closed, and the buildings and storage tanks were all removed. I think the concrete slab is still there, however. The chemical plume is, too—albeit somewhat contained. The neighborhood has become a hipster enclave, with art lofts and trendy pubs and eateries (2).
PSC continues to do business in Washington, and operates a few other Treatment Storage and Disposal facilities. They’re considered a reputable company, if not a perfect one. I didn’t spend much time as a front-line grunt. I ended up doing paper and computer tracking of waste in an office for PSC, until finding a job closer to home. I have worked for Kitsap County since 2001, still in the field of hazardous waste. We operate a collection program for household hazardous waste and small business hazardous waste. We have a permanent facility for this. We’re a mid-sized county, about 250,000, and manage about 750,000 pounds of hazardous waste every year.
The action at Kitsap County’s facility is much less intense. We process very little material on-site; most is packaged properly for shipment off-site. We do have our own version of a “can crusher,” but we only use it for non-hazardous latex paint. We actually use PSC to handle our waste. Our location has always had impermeable flooring and containment system, so contamination is a non-issue.
We still get in pretty dangerous stuff, however. Last year, we received a few containers of 45% hydrofluoric acid, a chemical used in glass etching. Unlike many corrosives that harm the skin, hydrofluoric acid will also go through your body and attack your bones. It can be a dangerous and sometimes deadly waste (3). Homeowners still have elemental mercury, which was commonly used in small-scale mining and gold collecting. Kitsap County usually collects dozens of small bottles of the stuff every year. Even DDT and cyanide come in on occasion.
Like most facilities of this type, we have a “wall of fame,” with containers that are notable for their age or entertaining graphics, or both. I am proud of a Bob Ross shrine we built, in honor of the curly headed, extra mellow PBS host of a how-to-paint show. He had a line of paints and paint supplies with his image on them. It’s important to have a sense of humor in the hazardous waste collection industry.
It keeps the environment from getting too toxic!