A dangerous fire erupted on the Tacoma tideflats in 2018 after a company mismanaged hazardous waste. That fire and other compliance problems at the Stericycle-Tacoma hazardous waste facility spurred a $1.9 million fine from the Washington Department of Ecology.

Stericycle-Tacoma, which operates under the name “Burlington Environmental,” is one of two businesses in the state that collect, manage and dispose of hazardous waste generated by industries and businesses. Because their business manages dangerous chemicals, it is legally required to safely and properly handle material with the utmost care.

“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.”

In July 2018, Stericycle-Tacoma accepted a shipment of 510 drums of tetrazole – a hazardous powdered chemical used to inflate vehicle airbags. The company was required to send the drums to a licensed incinerator. Instead, Stericycle emptied several dozen drums with the intention of loading the material onto a rail car to ship to a landfill. As the waste was being processed, it ignited and caused a large fire. Fortunately, the facility’s employees were able to escape unharmed.

During Ecology’s investigation of the fire, Stericycle provided misleading and incomplete documentation. Ecology inspectors also discovered that the company failed to properly manage the waste and residue left by the fire.

During a follow-up inspection in August 2018, Ecology found a serious lack of training and failure to follow proper procedures at the facility. Then, in November 2018, there was a second, smaller fire in the facility’s shredder after Stericycle allowed containers with leftover liquid chemicals to mix. Ecology inspectors issued a compliance letter to the company in 2017 specifically warning against allowing liquids to enter the shredder. Again, no employees were harmed in the incident.

Because of the repeated problems with training, oversight and abiding by the facility’s permit conditions, along with the $1.9 million fine, Ecology gave Stericycle 30 days to come into compliance or face revocation of its operating permit.

The company has 30 days to appeal the penalty to the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board.