When the decision to dredge at Aquatic Park was made, the city of Berkeley had recently lost its hazardous waste disposal and emergency response contractor, after the state Department of Toxic Substance Control ordered the company’s Palo Alto facility to close and revoked its operating permit in August because of a history of violations and accidents.
On May 8, when the City Council approved a contract with Romic Environmental Techno-logies Corporation for “disposal of hazardous and universal waste generated by the city and to
provide emergency response, cleanup and disposal services,” the controversial waste firm was already under investigation by the state’s toxics department for a May 2004 and March 2006 burn incident and June 2006 chemical release and employee burn incidents.
The state also fined Romic $849,500 in 2005 for improper waste storage.
The U.S. EPA was investigating Romic’s Chandler, Ariz., facility at the same time for violating federal waste handling and storage laws. EPA’s $97,000 in fines against Romic for violating environmental law came right after the agency shut down the Chandler plant by refusing to grant it a permanent use permit in August.
The decision resolved EPA’s complaint about a series of emission releases into the air at Romic’s Chandler facility near the Gila River Indian Reservation on April 5 and the company’s subsequent failure to implement emergency contingency operations to mitigate the possibility of a release.
Although some Berkeley city officials had advised the city’s Public Works department against hiring Romic, the company remained under contract for six months.
City Manager Phil Kamlarz told the Planet that he had not been aware of Romic’s controversial history.
“I’ll have to look into it,” he said.
“The general policy is that until there is substantial evidence about violations, we can’t disqualify the bidder.”
Jim Mason, the city’s occupational health and safety officer, told the Planet that the city had not conducted any business with Romic during the contract period.
“Even though they were under investigation it does not mean they are a bad contractor,” he said.
Mason added that during the time Romic was under investigation by the EPA, it was under a temporary contract with the city for $25,000.
According to the contract approved for renewal by the City Council in May, Romic had been the city’s primary hazardous waste disposal and emergency response contractor since 2006. The contract was supposed to be extended until 2011 for $450,000, but according to Mason it was never executed.
In his recommendation to Kamlarz to approve the renewal, David Hodgkins, the city’s director of human resources, said that city staff had “thoroughly examined Romic Environmental Technologies Corporation’s references and credentials” and found it to be a responsible bidder.
But Cheryl Nelson, manager of EPA's Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Facilities Management Office, said the city should have known enough to be wary of Romic.
“The city would have found out about the ongoing investigations against Romic if they had contacted the State Department of Toxic Substance Control,” she said.
“We don’t endorse any hazardous waste contractors but the city could have checked up on their permit and asked questions ... There’s a lot that could have been done.”
Nelson added that city officials should have been aware of the June 2006 incident when 4,000 gallons of hazardous chemicals reacted with each other while being loaded into a tanker truck at Romic’s Palo Alto facility and created a cloud over two acres of nearby wetlands.
“It was pretty serious,” she said. “It was all over the news.”
Councilmember Darryl Moore told the Planet on Thursday that he was unaware of Romic’s history.
“This is all new information for me,” he said.
“It’s extremely disturbing that the city did not act with due diligence to check the company’s background. There are lots of hazardous waste contractors out there. There is no need for the city to deal with a firm that is under investigation.”
Massachusetts-based Clean Harbors Environmental Services acquired certain assets of Romic in June but excluded its Palo Alto and Chandler, Ariz. facilities.