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LJS says violations are trivial

Phil Jensen, president of LJS Enterprises plans to appeal $33,225 in DEQ penalties

January 21, 2006

Phil Jensen said he will appeal the $33,225 in penalties the Department of Environmental Quality levied against LJS Enterprises — formerly Luhr Jensen and Sons — on Dec. 6, 2005, for mishandling environmentally hazardous materials.

The nature of the 10 violations are tedious and trivial in nature, the LJS president said, and that is the basis of his appeal.

“We respect them and what they are trying to do,” LJS’s president said. “But their enforcement is a machine that we don’t want to get involved with.”

Most of DEQ’s 10 penalties were for the improper storage, labeling and handling of hazardous wastes, such as spent nickel, lacquer thinner and phosophoric acid.

“This is what we’re talking about,” Jensen said. “Not dumping toxins into the Columbia. We are protectors of the environment. No one is greener than I am.”

In a five-page letter to the Hood River News, Jensen responded to nine of the 10 alleged violations.

In the letter, Jensen denies the accuracy of four accusations, blames a former employee for two of them, “defers partial responsibility to the contracting shipping agency who advised Luhr Jensen” for one more and downplays two others saying for one of them, “… this was a one-day event.”

LJS lawyers might elaborate on these arguments in their appeal.

An appeal is a costly route for the 250-employee business.

The last time Jensen appealed a $66,000 DEQ penalty in 2002, the attorney fees alone cost him $10,000.

And the DEQ merely sliced the bill in half.

But, he says, money is only one reason for an appeal.

“It (appealing) becomes an obsession because it’s an insult to your psyche,” Jensen said. “They are the judge and the jury and they are never wrong. We have not been successful in arguing our point and winning our point with the DEQ.”

Jensen needn’t worry about facing the judge, jury and sheriff at the same time.

Like all DEQ appellents, Jensen will actually be appealing his case to a soverign board, called the Environmental Quality Commission.

It is comprised of five citizens, which the governor nominated.

Working with the DEQ —

Jensen’s trouble with the DEQ might have something to do with the environmental record of LJS, said Jeannette Freeman, hazardous waste specialist at the DEQ.

Usually, the DEQ tries to nurture a company back into compliance, Freeman said.

But this is the fourth time the DEQ has penalized LJS for its environmental habits. And that’s not including the “technical assistance” the agency provided LJS in 2003 when it discovered similar mishandlings of environmental wastes.

In a technical assistance process, an inspector discovers violations and rather than assess a penalty, gives the company 30 days to solve the problem, Freeman said.

As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency put LJS on oversight inspection, a sort of watch list for likely offenders of environmental laws.

So when Jeff Ingalls, hazardous waste specialist from the DEQ, inspected LJS (then Luhr Jensen and Sons) on June 13 and 14 of 2005 and reported many of the recurring violations for which DEQ had penalized LJS in earlier years, Jensen claimed in his letter to the Hood River News Ingalls was “rather nervous and acted in a rather intimidating manner during this inspection.”

In his assessment of the civil penalty, Ingalls admits his own frustrations.

“Particularly disturbing,” Ingalls wrote in the notice of violation, “is that a number of the violations documented during the 2005 inspection are identical to those found in prior inspections.

“Foremost among the Department’s concerns is Luhr Jensen’s continued practice of allowing chrome plating wastes to accumulate in the sump beneath the plating room without ensuring that the sump meets state standards for hazardous waste storage tanks.”

In his letter, Jensen argues engineers designed the sump to prevent contaminants from seeping out and to allow the recycling of “materials that may have spilled into it.”

Employees have thoroughly cleaned the sump and now clean it on a weekly basis, he wrote.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the possible result of four of LJS’s violations: the improper storage, certification and mislabeling of hazardous wastes.

Jensen said in a Wednesday morning interview he could not guarantee that some hazardous wastes did not end up in a disposal facility unequipped to handle them.

“It would be true if somebody didn’t know it was hazardous waste, they wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he said.

Tough job —

Many of the 10 penalties the DEQ slapped on Luhr Jensen came down to one job, Jensen said.

That job is the environmental coordinator.

The environmental coordinator is in charge of bookkeeping the daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly disposals of hazardous wastes, labeling and containing the waste and ensuring LJS transports it to the appropriate disposal facility.

In addition to these responsibilities, the environmental coordinator must see that production workers — most of whom are Spanish speaking — don’t violate any one of hundreds of environmental codes.

“The understanding of the environmental laws, bookkeeping, the ability to get after those guys: It’s a big responsibility,” Jensen said.

A responsibility that requires one week of training.

The current environmental coordinator earns $12 an hour plus benefits.

The last coordinator was “encouraged to leave” after more than two years on the job and three months after DEQ inspected the facility.

“We immediately discovered the problem and fixed it,” Jensen said.

Neither the current coordinator, nor the last one had college educations. Both were hand-picked from the production line for their intelligence and abilities, Jensen said.

“We’re good guys trying to do the right thing,” he said.

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