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Acid powder incident under probe by DEQ and company

Mar 27, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is investigating an energy company's disposal of benzoic acid powder in the Riverton area that concerned trash workers who were exposed to the substance.

A City of Riverton's trash collection vehicle picked up the substance in late February. Later, a municipal worker and others at the baling facility on Smith Road were exposed to the powdery substance that had been disposed by Sanjel Corp.

Paul Throckmartin, the City of Riverton's lands division manager, said one of his workers encountered a cloud of the substance while cleaning out the back of the trash truck.

"It created a cloud of real fine material," Throckmartin said. "That's what happened with us. Of course then the people at the baling station ran into it also when they went to push it in and bale it."

On March 12, The Fremont County Solid Waste District board meeting included discussion about the exposure and concern that one person may have suffered a cardiac event as a result.

Throckmartin said the city employee did not have any medically-related issue, such as a heart attack, from the exposure, but the incident did create concern.

"This is the most that we're aware of, maybe the most potential seriousness that we've ever run into that I can remember," Throckmartin said. "Thankfully it turned out there wasn't any real problem."

At the board's meeting, solid waste district superintendent Andy Frey said the three or four employees who were exposed will undergo medical tests with the request that Sanjel pay their costs.

"It's still a work in progress," Frey told the district's board members.

For the district, part of the concern is receiving a substance it is not equipped to handle for disposal.

"The waste should be handled by somebody specialized in hazardous waste disposal, which we are not," Frey said.

Solid waste district lawyer Rick Sollars said the incident involves the Wyoming Attorney General's Office.

"The DEQ has referred it on to the attorney general's office," Sollars said.

Vivienne Allen, Sanjel manager of corporate marketing and communication in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, said later that the company is working to gather information about the matter.

"We are currently collaborating with all parties involved and ... we are looking into the situation," Allen said.

Stakeholders in the situation, including Sanjel, will hold a meeting March 28 to discuss the matter further.

Various material safety data sheets, known as an MSDS, indicate there could be potential irritation if benzoic acid is ingested, inhaled or exposed to skin or eyes.

The Department of Environmental Quality is trying to determine whether any violations occurred with Sanjel's disposal.

"We're investigating it," said Charles Plymale, senior environmental analyst with the DEQ's solid and hazardous waste division in Lander. "We're looking at the materials, seeing whether there's a regulatory authority with DEQ or not."

Plymale received e-mail notification March 5 about the exposure from the solid waste district. The state agency received copies of correspondence between the district and Sanjel.

"The county is working on it from their side," Plymale said. "Until we actually investigate and really look at it and see if there is any regulatory authority by us, we don't know if there's any future enforcement or anything like that."

Frey said he learned of the incident March 2 from Throckmartin. The incident happened sometime during the week of Feb. 20.

"It was a powder," he said. "By the time anything reaches our bale station it was not in what it was originally in. It was just mixed in with the waste.

"By the time we found out that it had even come through our facility it had been processed and sent through, and we just continued with our standard operations," he said. "It was baled and sent out to the landfill and placed out there and covered."

The medical evaluations for the solid waste employees are a precaution, Frey said.

"We never had anybody that was made noticeably ill," he said, adding the intent is "to get checked up, anybody that was potentially exposed."

Frey wants to get direction from the DEQ before taking additional steps.

"We're just taking it day-by-day trying to figure out the best way to handle it and the best way to move forward," he said. "Our intent is to keep our employees and the public safe."

Throckmartin said the incident is a learning experience.

"We're never sure what ends up in our containers," he said. "Our people are aware if they see something they're not sure of, to start questioning before they get into the trucks."

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