Image of smoke stack, used from Pexels.com

I was going to geek out about this anyway, so I might as well bring all of you along with me. 

As you may or may not know, I work as an EHS consultant for a consulting company who I won’t name here for privacy reasons; that said, if you know me and my company, these are my personal opinions and do not reflect the views of my employer.With that out of the way, I came across a thread from someone who purported to have been sickened by Apple exhausting toxic chemicals from one of their plantsObviously this piqued my curiosity, so I read through the actual* EPA report and put my own thoughts together on this. Please read all of this with “If this is a real EPA report” in front of every statement, as I can only go by what was presented in this person’s thread and the purported EPA report, and have no way of checking the legitimacy of this. But when have I let that stop me from writing a long opinion piece? Please also note that I’m coming at this from a worker and environmental safety angle, and not an EPA fines angle, so when I refer to something as “serious” or “minor”, I’m referring to the risk to employees and the public, and not necessarily the dollar amount of any fines.

Ok. So. Many of the violations in the report are for minor things that wouldn’t immediately affect environmental health or safety, like bottle labels not being visible from the aisles. Important in case of a spill, but not in everyday affairs. I don’t like that they are stacking bottles on top of bottles instead of using shelves, as this increases the potential for a crack or leak, but this isn’t strictly against the regs. The report doesn’t mention whether they are using secondary containment (such as a spill deck) in case of spills, but I have to imagine they are if it wasn’t cited, so that’s good.

As a Large Quantity Generator, they can accumulate any amount of waste, as long as it’s shipped off for disposal within 90 days of the accumulation date. Accumulation starts either when a container at a satellite waste collection location is filled and then dated and moved to the Central Accumulation Area (CAA), OR if a bottle is being filled in the CAA, the date the first drop of waste goes in. They have been moving containers over without dating them first, so that’s a no-no. Again, not an immediate threat to safety, but not indicative of a good safety program. They also had some containers that were older than 90 days. Same deal, not great, not terrible.

They have also not been performing and/or documenting the required weekly inspections of their CAA (they didn’t mention inspections of satellite areas, but those are required weekly in MA, where I do most of my work, so I’m guessing CA has a similar requirement) , and have not been performing and/or documenting the required daily inspections (even on weekends and holidays) of the 1700 gallon spent solvent tank. This one is a little more serious, as if they’re not doing inspections, there is a higher potential for leaks and spills to go unnoticed for longer.

A more concerning issue is that they also had a waste drum containing corrosive waste stored with an open bunghole (lol) that they said was open to prevent pressure from building up in the container. My dudes, this is not an excuse to have an open waste container. They need to get an appropriate closure that can release pressure when needed.

We then get into some more serious things around identification and treatment of waste. Waste is classified by the person/entity creating it, and they are required under RCRA (and CA law) to classify their waste correctly. Waste can be “Hazardous Waste”, which is regulated by RCRA (and CA law), if it falls into one or more of several categories or exhibits certain characteristics. There are many things that are not technically “hazardous waste”, but that we don’t want to just dump into rivers or the air. These are referred to in the report as NRHW, which I’m guessing stands for “Non-Regulated Hazardous Waste”. We have a similar designation in MA. These wastes are not federal waste but are identified and regulated only by the state. It’s a Pretty Big Deal to misclassify waste. Especially if you’re, say, purposely trying to get around hazardous waste regs, not that I am accusing anyone of anything.

People/entities are NOT allowed to pretreat their own waste unless they have a permit or exemption to do so. According to the report, Apple was diluting a lot of their waste and then classifying and disposing of it as state waste instead of hazardous waste. For the EPA, the solution to pollution is not always dilution… but we’ll get there, LOL.

So federal hazardous wastes are subject to a regulation called Land Disposal Restrictions, which designate certain types of land disposal units to be used for certain types of waste. Long story short, if a waste is classified as a less hazardous waste, it can be disposed in a less restrictive land disposal unit. Meaning that if a hazardous waste is popped in a landfill, it can cause groundwater contamination. There’s not enough info to determine whether that’s the case, but since they do have two toxic materials on their list of wastes generated (D011 – silver, and D035 – methyl ethyl ketone (MEK)), this could be a problem. And since waste generators are responsible for their waste from “cradle to grave”, Apple would be on the hook for this, NOT their waste disposal vendor. Now, the EPA does specifically state that these wastes are supposed to be handled as ignitible (D001) and corrosive (D002) hazardous wastes, so it’s possible there won’t be further fallout from this if the toxic wastes aren’t involved.

Another thing that the feds can get on them about is that by misclassifying their waste, they shipped hazardous waste on public roadways without proper labeling (and possibly placarding, especially if they’re shipping 1700 gallons at a time). The Department of Transportation (DOT) could get in on the action and cite them for this as well. They had over 200 shipments mislabeled this way, and this seems, in my armchair quarterbacking opinion, like it could be an end run to get around DOT registration and placarding. Or it could just be an honest mistake.

Now we get to the Clean Air Act stuff, which I am admittedly not as well-versed in.

So the CAA puts limits on the amount of chemicals that are allowed to go out from an entity in their air exhaust. The limits are high enough that your run-of-the-mill startup laboratory is never going to hit them, but a manufacturer and Large Quantity Generator of hazardous waste does have to be concerned about this. For an LQG client I had, I did a mass balance review of their incoming chemicals and their outgoing waste to prove that almost all of the incoming chemicals went out as hazardous waste and not in the air.<

The fact that Apple had a CAA permit but 1) did not include their activated charcoal filter on there, 2) have not tested all of the solvents in their waste stream for breakthrough, and 3) are not disposing of the spent activated charcoal as hazardous waste is really concerning. Considering they aren’ treating all of that solvent as hazardous waste, they don’t have a way to prove it’s not just going straight up the stack and out into the air. Additionally, any measurements they may have made are suspect because they apparently haven’t been calibrating their multigas detector before using it. Are they making people a quarter mile away from their facility sick? It seems unlikely to me. There are stack height requirements for a reason, and if they are following this requirements (and the EPA didn’t mention that they are not), then one would assume sufficient air mixing as to not pose a threat to others around them. Obviously I can’t say for certain without a lot more information and a lot of calculations that I could do but would need to research a lot since it’s been a while since my Industrial Hygiene course, but that’s my gut feel.

Just taking the MEK as an example, since it is one of the toxic wastes that they are shown to generate: The odor threshold for MEK has a pretty wide range, but in all cases is lower than the Permissible Exposure Limit, meaning that you would smell it before there was an actual problem level in the air, and it’s possible that people could smell it but not actually be harmed by it. The problem level is 200 ppm for MEK. Fairly easy to get to if you’re in a small room without adequate ventilation, much harder to get to outside and a quarter mile away. As another point of reference, formaldehyde’s PEL is 0.75 ppm and there is still work that can be done on the bench with it without hitting that.<

If all of this is legit, Apple will have to evaluate not only the activated charcoal system, but also the 1700 gallon spent solvent tank and the solvent transfer system to see whether they are covered under the CAA and update their permit if they are.

It will be interesting to see if this turns out to be a legit complaint and how it shakes out if it makes it to court. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for news on it.

*I don’t actually know if this is legit, but I’m assuming it is for the sake of argument.

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