The owner of a central Montana landfill has agreed to pay the U.S. government $100,000 to settle a civil action over 1,600 tons of earth containing unsafe levels of lead that sat untreated and unprotected for about four years.
The settlement announced last week came more than three years after a federal investigation found lead levels averaging more than five times the legal limit in the waste pile at the High Plains Sanitary Landfill in Floweree.
Roger Bridgeford , the landfill manager for owner Montana Waste Systems, said the property owner who hauled the waste to the landfill in 71 truckloads in 2005 misrepresented what it contained. The waste has since been properly treated and disposed of, Bridgeford said.
“We followed every step that the (state Department of Environmental Quality) requires us to follow before we accept waste. We got misinformation about the waste,” Bridgeford said.
The U.S. attorney’s office announced the settlement with Montana Waste Systems in a court filing the day after it made its civil complaint against the company public.
Government regulators claimed the company had disposed of hazardous waste that didn’t meet treatment standards, stored hazardous waste at a facility without a permit, and stored hazardous waste in a substandard waste pile.
Each charge can carry a fine of $25,000 or more for every day the contaminated pile sat – potentially topping $100 million in fines for that long period of time. The settlement calls for Montana Waste Systems to pay $100,000, and the company does not admit to any wrongdoing.
The deal must be approved by a judge.
Still unresolved is any action or settlement against the landowner that excavated the contaminated earth from its Great Falls property and hauled 25 miles away to High Plains Sanitary Landfill, federal prosecutors said.
According to the government complaint, the waste pile came from a property near downtown Great Falls owned by a company called The Three W’s Inc. The property was a salvage yard in the 1960s where lead acid batteries were broken to recover the metals inside. The battery cases and acid contaminated with lead were then buried in the ground.
The contaminated soil sat until 2005, when the property’s tenant at the time, scrap metal recycling company Steel Etc., wanted to install a concrete pad.
A company called Higgins Consulting Engineers hired by The Three W’s contacted High Plains Sanitary Landfill to dispose of the waste.
Bridgeford told the consultants they needed to conduct a test that simulates what might leach out of the soil before the landfill could take it. But before the results of those tests came, the property owner hauled the waste to the landfill in September 2005 and placed the pile at the edge of the landfill, separate from the other waste.
“The waste pile was not protected from erosion, runoff and wind-blown deposition,” the lawsuit said. Numerous lead-battery parts were visible in the pile, it added.
The first test results came back the next month and showed lead levels higher than the regulated limits. In May 2006, Higgins Consulting tested the pile again, with the same results.
In June 2007, The Three W’s notified the state DEQ of the hazardous waste at the landfill.
DEQ enforcement division head John Arrigo said state regulators investigated and issued a notice of violation and an administrative compliance order on June 20, 2008, citing both Three W’s and Montana Waste Systems with unlawful disposal of hazardous waste.
The order was appealed and a negotiated settlement was reached with the state in April 2009 requiring the waste to be treated within 90 days.
The DEQ didn’t fine the companies involved because the state is not allowed to assess penalties for violations more than two years old. The waste had been sitting there for more than three years at that point.
Arrigo said the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s statute of limitations is five years instead of two, so state officials called the federal agency.
“We asked EPA to look at it from their perspective,” Arrigo said Friday.
EPA officials tested the pile in June 2009 and found lead levels that averaged more than five times the limit, and were more than eight times above the limit in one sample, according to the lawsuit.
The waste was treated and disposed of properly that September.
“This does not at all effect the environmental situation of our landfill. We have a perfect, impeccable record since our inception,” Bridgeford said.
It is unclear whether any additional federal actions are planned. There are no further state actions pending.
“They eventually neutralized the waste and disposed of it and we were happy,” Arrigo said.
There are no listings for The Three W’s in Great Falls. A Great Falls listing for The Three W’s president, Ted Weissman, was disconnected.
A person who answered the phone at a number listed for Higgins Consulting Engineers in Missoula said it was the wrong number.
The Great Falls property where the earth was excavated is on a list of potential state Superfund sites, but as long as the contamination is underground and is not threatening to seep into the groundwater or otherwise pose an immediate risk, it will likely be left alone, DEQ officials said.