Air Force left hazardous waste in Idaho landfill - and needs to fix it, lawsuit says

This image, from a report commissioned by ProTech on the challenges of removing chromium waste from an Elmore County landfill, shows an example of the powdery waste involved.
This image, from a report commissioned by ProTech on the challenges of removing chromium waste from an Elmore County landfill, shows an example of the powdery waste involved.

Almost everyone agrees on this: Early last year, a shipment of hazardous waste was taken from Mountain Home Air Force Base to a municipal landfill on Simco Road.

But discussion of who’s at fault for the prohibited shipment has devolved into disagreements, pointed fingers and now, a lawsuit.

In the midst of it all, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is working out how the base and a contractor it hired will address the now-buried waste.

The company that owns the landfill, Idaho Waste Systems, sued the Air Force and two contractors this spring in a bid to force action. “Hopefully, we can get this thing resolved to everybody’s benefit,” said Jack Yarbrough, the company’s president.

Even the exact amount of hazardous waste involved is in dispute. Idaho Waste Systems’ lawsuit cites an early estimate of 4,000 pounds — 2 tons — of hazardous materials that made it into the landfill. DEQ used that figure as well, but now agrees with the lead contractor’s much smaller assessment of 371 pounds of improperly buried waste, said Albert Crawshaw, waste and remediation manager in DEQ’s Boise regional office.

Specifically, the waste contained hexavalent chromium, a trace metal that in this particular form can cause cancer and at certain concentrations is considered dangerous. The chromium was mixed in the powdery remains of floor coatings removed from one building of the Air Force base.

The Simco landfill is only licensed for municipal solid waste and cannot accept any hazardous waste.

The floor project and the waste shipment

According to court documents and public records obtained from DEQ, in 2016 the Air Force contracted with ProTech Coatings of Salt Lake City to remove and replace chemical-resistant urethane floor coatings in three large buildings at the base. The work created 24,360 pounds of debris, which was placed into plastic bags and deposited into dumpsters at the project site.

The waste was tested for one hazardous substance, lead. Meanwhile, ProTech on Feb. 8, 2017, had Glenns Ferry-based Snake River Rubbish empty the dumpsters and deliver all of the waste to the Simco landfill.

The Air Force received the test results March 1: Lead levels were within proper limits, but high enough to merit additional hazmat testing. A followup test March 7 found material from one of the buildings contained chromium, which at certain concentrations is considered hazardous waste.

An Air Force environmental manager reported the possible contamination to DEQ. Crawshaw responded the next day, saying since the Air Force generated the waste, it had to contact Idaho Waste Systems and “schedule the immediate removal of the hazardous waste” because the landfill was not permitted to handle it.

Another 10,000 tons of municipal solid waste was added to the dump site before the contamination’s discovery, the documents state.

“The initial response from DEQ is ‘you need to identify the waste and remove it,’ “ Crawshaw told the Statesman. “That was before this process.”

DEQ investigated and found the Air Force and ProTech had violated four environmental rules involving the determination, accumulation and reporting of hazardous waste, and illegal disposal of such waste. It issued the pair a notice of violation in March 2018, with combined fines of $15,605.

Snake River Rubbish was given a warning letter for not having proper documentation. Crawshaw in April 2017 recommended the state also give Idaho Waste Systems a notice of violation, but no final decision appears to have been made on that.

mhafb flooring 2.JPG
This image, from a report commissioned by Idaho Waste Systems, shows a satellite view of the company’s Elmore County landfill and the section where chromium waste was buried in early 2017. Olympus Technical Services/Idaho Waste Systems, via DEQ

What will be done with the chromium now?

In a March 23, 2018, staff report, DEQ said it agreed with an Air Force proposal to leave the waste in place. The regulator said removing the contamination could cause more problems than it would solve: if workers could even find all of the powder, holes drilled during the search could break the landfill’s protective liner, and gases released in the process could start a fire.

Meanwhile, the other parties hired their own experts and attorneys. ProTech, in particular, argued the chromium waste didn’t actually violate standards to begin with, citing the fact that it was combined with another building’s waste in the same dumpster. DEQ officials rejected this approach.

The Air Force told ProTech in June 2017 that it planned to hold the contractor liable for any penalties and fallout because it didn’t wait for the test results before disposing of the waste.

And Idaho Waste Systems, in a series of emails, insisted DEQ share more information and do more to force a cleanup in line with Crawshaw’s initial response.

“It appears to IWS that MHAFB may be attempting to influence the IDEQ to lower the costs of assessment and clean up of the hexavalent chromium, for the benefit of MHAFB and at the direct prejudice and expense of IWS,” Yarbrough wrote April 17, 2017. “This will not be acceptable.”

The Statesman was unable to get comment from the Air Force or ProTech. But Yarbrough said in an interview that he’s concerned about the incident’s long-term effects.

“We’re probably going to have to continue to monitor it for years,” he said. “... It’s obviously decreased the value of the landfill.”

He spoke highly of DEQ — and of local Air Force authorities, whom he said initially took full responsibility for the mistake. But he shared “frustration” over how the process has evolved, particularly once Air Force higher-ups back East became involved.

“There’s currently no one in the government communicating to me or Idaho Waste Systems any interest in resolving this problem,” Yarbrough said while discussing the Air Force.

The landfill’s lawsuit

On May 23, 2018, Idaho Waste Systems sued the Air Force, ProTech and Snake River Rubbish. The lawsuit relies heavily on Crawshaw’s initial email, and claims the defendants have neglected any effort to fix “the environmental contamination which they have caused.”

The landfill operator makes one additional claim: that the defendants broke federal environmental law through “(a) ‘release’ of hazardous substances ... into the soils and groundwater at or around the IWS Site.” It’s unclear whether the company is claiming chromium escaped the landfill; when asked about this claim, Yarbrough replied, “I think I’ve said just about as much as I can say.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has no record of any violations at Idaho Waste Systems since 2016, a spokesman said. According to the lawsuit, Idaho Waste Systems plans to notify the EPA of its claims, a procedural step with this kind of lawsuit.

Everyone Idaho Waste Systems sued has since responded in court, uniformly denying the claims and blaming any damages on other parties. The Air Force filed a counterclaim, arguing that the federal law Idaho Waste Systems cites makes the landfill operator liable for any soil and groundwater contamination.

Yarbrough wants recovery of all the costs he’s incurred investigating the problem. Those include hiring an attorney, getting an expert from Boise to examine cleaning up the site, and expenses of changing his business practices to avoid further burying the chromium waste.

He’s worried by the idea of leaving the chromium where it is for safety: “And I guess the point is, safer for who?” he asked.

But he repeatedly emphasized his faith in state regulators, and said his lawsuit is a necessary step to get things moving.

“IDEQ is a top-notch state organization, and they’re pretty sharp on these sort of things,” Yarbrough said. “So we’re just going to proceed with this lawsuit and try to come out with a reasonable solution.”