A Serial Environmental Violator is in Charge of Cleaning Up Mead

Multiple recent environmental disasters in Nebraska make it clear that without stronger environmental supervision and enforcement our state will continue to be a toilet for greedy businesses.

Clean Harbors is the company in charge of cleaning up the environmental disaster in Mead, Nebraska, where AltEn accumulated mountains of pesticide-contaminated waste that poisoned soil, waterways, and animals, as Pete Ricketts’s toothless Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) repeatedly and ineffectually asked them to stop. However, the cleanup company itself has officially earned the status of “significant noncomplier” with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the last three years. We don’t know the ultimate fate of the waste that Clean Harbors is currently processing at the AltEn site in Mead, but some of it ultimately may head to the Clean Harbors hazardous waste incinerator in the Nebraska panhandle, which has chronically violated environmental regulations.

In the 1980s, Clean Harbors mostly dealt with oil spills and other cleanups, but its young founder, Alan McKim, a Massachusetts native, wanted to expand. Clean Harbors tried over and over to build a hazardous waste incinerator in Massachusetts that would burn toxic chemicals at super high temperatures. But every town they tried in Massachusetts gave the same answer: Warren? No. Haverill? No. Gardner? No. Freetown? No. McKim’s hometown, Braintree, was so opposed to the incinerator that two thousand residents formed a human chain on a bridge to protest. Nope, not here, they said–we are not going to risk cancer, birth defects, and permanent environmental damage.

Perhaps these Massachusetts towns were guilty of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). But their opposition was a far cry from the reaction of the small town in western Nebraska that would soon become the site of one of the first superhot hazardous waste smokestacks in the country. Kimball, Nebraska, said PIMBY–“Please In My Back Yard.” (Kimball is also notable for its storage of Minutemen nuclear warheads and its failed attempt to woo a private company to build a prison there.)

In 1990 the state of Massachusetts officially rejected Clean Harbors’ attempt to build an incinerator in Braintree, the company’s fifth failure to find a community in Massachusetts that was hospitable.

In January of 1994, a Colorado corporation, Ecova, completed construction of a hazardous waste incinerator in Kimball at a cost of 70 million dollars. Only seven months after opening, while they were still in trial phases to make sure they passed environmental tests, Ecova abruptly abandoned the plant. Ecova’s publicly stated reasons didn’t make a lot of sense–they said the incinerator was just not financially viable because of too much competition in the market. (You would think that executives would perform a basic market analysis before spending $70 million on an incinerator.) Then, before Ecova had even fully shut down the plant, Clean Harbors announced that they would be purchasing the Kimball incinerator to do exactly the kind of waste burning that towns in Massachusetts had refused to allow. Kimball’s mayor at the time, Tom Wilson, said that the town had “won the lotto” because it had such good luck finding a company that would keep the incinerator open.

Today, the Kimball incinerator, which sits about 5 miles outside of town on 640 acres, is one of seven such incinerators Clean Harbors operates in North America. One is in Canada, three are in Texas, and the other two are in Utah and Arkansas. They burn chemicals from a range of industries into ash that is treated until it no longer legally counts as hazardous waste and is then buried. Together they represent almost 70% of the hazardous waste incineration capacity for the entire continent.

Almost from the beginning, Clean Harbors has been found to violate state and federal regulations for hazardous waste disposal. Here is a timeline of some noteworthy incidents at the Kimball site:

1997: The EPA fined Clean Harbors $14,500 for noncompliance.

2000: Nebraska fined Clean Harbors $17,500 for air pollution and allowing liquid chemicals to spill out of the facility.

2002: Nebraska fined Clean Harbors for accepting waste it was not allowed to accept and for improperly burning arsenic.

2003: Craig Wheeland, a 43-year-old employee and resident of Kimball, died at Clean Harbors after he was poisoned by gas that was created as he applied treatment to incinerated ash. The gas also sickened another worker.

2004: The EPA found that Clean Harbors had violated provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and their hazardous waste permit. They fined the company $38,500.

2005: The EPA and Department of Justice determined that Clean Harbors was miscalculating the total annual amount of benzene emissions in violation of the national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants at the Kimball site and other locations. Clean Harbors had to pay $300,000.

2009-2010: The EPA determined that Clean Harbors was violating the law with 1) inadequate container management, 2) storage of incompatible waste (that is, waste that can cause a chemical reaction when mixed), 3) failing to minimize the possibility of releasing hazardous waste into the environment, 4) failure to maintain secondary containment of the waste, 5) failure to properly manage hazardous waste that it received, and improper control of of air emissions from waste tanks. The EPA fined Clean Harbors $150,000.

2010: The EPA found that Clean Harbors has failed to comply with a risk management plan.

2013: Nebraska found that Clean Harbors had been burning PCBs, a type of toxin whose production was banned in the U.S. in 1978, in excess of what is allowed by law. Clean Harbors was also burning mercury at a rate faster than allowed by law.

2014: A state inspection revealed that Clean Harbors was in violation of their hazardous waste permit because 1) a containment unit had cracks or gaps in it, 2) they were not adequately monitoring a vent, and 3) they were not properly dating all materials. Inspectors also noted combustible shrink wrap hanging off of containers where it wasn’t allowed and that trenches designed to catch spills were filled with debris. The same year, Clean Harbors was found to be emitting excessive perchloroethylene, a carcinogen used in dry cleaning, into the air.

2015: Clean Harbors tried to burn over a thousand tons of pesticide-contaminated soil from a notorious toxic waste site in New York at its Canadian incinerator but Canada refused to allow it. So they burned it in Kimball instead.

2020: Clean Harbors was ordered to pay $790,000 in federal and state fines for repeated violations of federal and state law, including burning PCBs and mercury, keeping storage containers in poor condition, and mixing incompatible hazardous chemicals that resulted in repeated fires. Inspectors noted that over the previous nine years they had seen hazardous waste slopped out of containers, rusty containers, and leaking lines in the facility. At least four times, inspectors found hazardous chemicals leaking into the air at the facility. In one case, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) had been continuously released into the air for two months out of a pressure valve. The settlement also noted a number of administrative and procedural failures, including failure to properly account for 18 fires at the facility.

2021: In February, Clean Harbors began storing hazardous waste in temporary containers because it claimed the unusually cold weather had caused a slowdown and backup at the site. Nebraska gave them permission to do so for 90 days, but the storage continued past the deadline–Clean Harbors claimed scheduled maintenance slowed them down and covid re-openings were causing a deluge of waste to arrive at the facility. Nebraska has given them until the end of the year to get into compliance, which, if met, would mean almost a year of hazardous waste storage in temporary containers not provided for in their permit. (See the story we broke about Alvo, Nebraska, for another example of Ricketts’s Department of Environment and Energy giving generous and extendable deadlines to polluters.)

2021: Clean Harbors is the lead contractor in cleaning up the environmental disaster in Mead, Nebraska. Several agricultural corporations whose waste comprised much of the disaster in Mead entered into a voluntary agreement to pay for the site cleanup, though they admit no fault.

State Senator Carol Blood has pushed the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy to explain how the disaster in Mead escaped enforcement and why the public should trust Clean Harbors to clean it up.

Some state senators have sounded the alarm about the many loopholes in Nebraska law that have allowed the disaster in Mead to develop. Senator Carol Blood seems to be the only Nebraska leader who has specifically asked–among many other important important questions–why the state has entrusted this job to a company with Clean Harbors’ record. NDEE did not answer that question when they responded to her.

Overall, NDEE’s defense of the slow-moving trainwreck that happened in full view in Mead is that they only have the power to respond, not prevent, and that their response is limited to a slow-growing pile of documentations of violations before any true powers of enforcement kick in. Certainly this seems to have been true of Mead and Alvo, and there’s reason to believe it’s also true of Clean Harbors.

State and federal regulations set a low bar. Agencies have enforcement powers that are slow and weak. If a company sets up shop in a remote area where many residents will turn a blind eye to the abuses of a significant employer, it seems they can continue to poison our state while funneling money into corporate pockets for an indefinite amount of time. In the case of Mead, corporate polluters are voluntarily paying–pardon me if I am highly skeptical of their largesse–one notorious offender in Nebraska to clean up the mess of another.

Clean Harbors Founder and CEO Alan McKim receives millions in bonuses for hitting all of the publicly traded company’s benchmarks despite the fact that the company’s Nebraska incinerator is a “significant noncomplier” with the EPA.

Between his salary, bonuses, and other perks, Clean Harbors’ CEO and founder Alan McKim currently appears to make about four million dollars a year. He lives in Massachusetts, the state that wouldn’t allow his incinerator. We live in Nebraska, where anything goes as long as corporations want it, a town with a declining population welcomes toxic jobs, and our state government continues to fail.