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Luhr Jensen slapped with $66,000 fine

A Hood River company that prides itself on being environmentally friendly has been fined $66,354 for violations of Oregon’s hazardous waste and water quality rules.

In addition, Luhr Jensen & Sons, Inc., was issued a $1,000 fine from the City of Hood River this week for releasing a high pH effluent into the wastewater treatment plant. That penalty follows a $10,000 levy against the company in the past two months for dumping heavy metals into the system.

Phil Jensen, owner of the fishing lure manufacturing plant, is denying the allegations of wrongdoing made by both the city and state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

“We do have the resources and we do have the resolve to prove our innocence — we’re not guilty of anything,” said Jensen, who has already paid the city fine but plans to appeal both the local and state charges.

He asserts that DEQ inspectors are “street local bureaucrats” who are charged with holding small businesses to regulatory standards that are more appropriate for their larger counterparts. For example, he said DEQ accused him of faulty recordkeeping because he had not hauled away barrels of hazardous waste within a given time period even though these containers were not yet full and it was expensive to give them special transport to a disposal facility.

However, DEQ inspector Jeff Ingalls said the law requires that hazardous waste containers be removed from the premises every 180 days and many companies smaller than Luhr Jensen routinely meet public health and safety standards. In addition, he said the DEQ regularly provides technical assistance to producers of toxic materials — an offer Luhr Jensen has not accepted.

He said the recent violations are of special concern since the Hood River operation already paid $11,400 ($3,800 through a mitigation program) in 1997 for violations of almost the same exact nature, which the company vowed to correct at that time.

“Every time we have gone there we have found a problem and we obviously need a bigger presence,” said Ingalls. “If you’re that environmentally inclusive why not be proactive instead of reactive?”

At issue is whether Luhr Jensen properly contained, transported and kept records on heavy metals used in its electro-plating and tin-plating operations. In addition, questions have been raised about copper and lead being released into the Columbia River through the stormwater drainage system, which Ingalls said has gone unsampled for the past eight years, and whether chrome sludge from a cement containment tank has leached into the earth it covers.

Bob Schwartz, project manager for DEQ’s cleanup programs, intends to answer those questions next month by working cooperatively with Luhr Jensen to drill core samples through the containment tank and by sampling sediment below stormwater piping at the edge of the river.

In addition he will be overseeing a geophysical operation at the Oak Grove plant which manufactures Big Chief and Little Chief electric meat smokers. That scientific methodology will answer an allegation filed by a former employee in the late 1980s that the company was burying metal drums filled with hazardous waste.

“There are times when we get reports like this that are well founded and times when they are not but we need to know,” said Schwartz.

On Monday, DEQ publicly declared that Luhr Jensen was being given the high dollar fine because of 14 violations that were found during an unannounced inspection last August. Five of these charges stem from tin plating waste that was hauled illegally from the Oak Grove plant and stored at the waterfront facility.

Jensen said the four 50-gallon barrels were untested and would have been acceptable for transfer if they had been treated first with baking soda.

However, Jensen’s assertion that the same mistake has only been made twice in 10 years drew sharp comment from Ingalls.

“This was an unannounced inspection and it is a huge coincidence that I just happened to be there in both cases and I’m sorry if that’s the way it happened but it still doesn’t change the violation,” he said.

Of special concern to Ingalls was the five-inch layer of “chrome sludge” in the bottom of a basement sump that a worker admitted had not been cleaned out for more than eight years. He said DEQ standards have determined that metals become hazardous waste when their presence exceeds more than five parts per million — and lab results showed samplings from the sump at 1,580 parts per million.

However, Jensen said the six-foot-deep containment structure was engineered 25 years ago without a drain to capture any materials from the plating operation above it which might accidentally be discharged. In fact, he said the only reason the 20-by-30-foot tank even had material in it on the day of the inspection was that it has been mistakenly used to catch water coolant which speeds the manufacturing cycle of newly soldered parts.

Jensen also said that tank had been viewed as the required “drip pad” for a plating filter that had been laid directly on the duckboard floor above it while awaiting disposal, the source of another violation.

Jensen believes many of the violations stemmed from Ingalls lack of understanding about the operation of his plant, a charge that Ingalls categorically denies.

“I have been doing this for 16 years and I have never lost one case. I inspect a lot of facilities and I don’t always know all the ins and outs of the operation but I do know hazardous waste when I see it and I know that chrome sludge in the bottom of a sump doesn’t belong there,” Ingalls said.

Jensen is also refuting the city’s methodology for sampling wastewater. He contends that sludge is being scooped up along with water at the junction where his outflow enters the treatment plant.

Doug Nichols, project manager for the city facility, adamantly denies that assertion. He said all routine samples are taken from just below the surface of the water and not near the bottom where solids gather.

“It is important for the public to know that, in spite of the implied and seemingly negative allegations that Luhr Jensen has been involved with, at no time have any of the ‘identified’ materials ever been put into a public waterway,” said Jensen. “These materials are directed to the waste water treatment plant, where they are treated in exactly the same manner as the wastewater that comes from the homes, offices, laboratories, etc., of every other person that is connected with our city wastewater treatment plant.”

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