Update: fraudulent environmental containers stored in Columbia
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Update: fraudulent environmental containers stored in Columbia

Date: April 5, 2010
By: Jeremy Essig
State Capitol Bureau
Links: The original story.

JEFFERSON CITY - Hazardous materials linked to a U.S. Attorney's investigation were held in a storage space on Rangeline Street in Columbia.

The Department of Natural Resources conducted an investigation in late January into space at Storage Mart Temporary Storage Facility, located at 2403 Rangeline St, according to documents obtained through a Sunshine request.

As previously reported, Mark Conner, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Department, said the department cannot "comment on the situation due to an active investigation into the matter by the United States Attorney's Office."

As a matter of procedure, the U.S. Attorney's office does not comment on a case until charges are filed, Don Ledford, a spokesman for the office said. Ledford refused to comment on whether an investigation was active, referring all questions back to the Department of Natural Resources.

Natural Resources investigators found 30 gas cylinders that may have contained "a extremely hazardous material that would ignite upon contact with air," although initial "investigations indicated no release," according to a department report.

The documents make no reference to radioactive issues, although the original source who disclosed the situation described it as an investigation into radioactive gas.

The department's report identified the cylinders containing the hazardous material has having originated from Umicore, advanced metals company with U.S. headquarters based in Quapaw, Okla. The company's president confirmed the cylinders originated from his company.

Richard Laird, president of Umicore USA Inc., said the cylinders which previously contained germanium hydride gas were to be disposed of in Oklahoma by SMC Environmental Services, which listed a Joplin phone number and address. The Environmental Protection Agency requires all cylinders that once contained hazardous gasses to be disposed of in a specific manner, Laird said.

SMC Environmental, however, has never registered as a business in Joplin, said Lynn Onstot, a spokeswoman for the City of Joplin. The phone number listed for SMC Environmental on invoices is a non-working number.

SMC was represented by a Umicore employee, Laird said, who, using a false EPA identification number was paid to dispose of the cylinders. Instead, the former employee, along with an unnamed partner, according to Laird, brought the cylinders to the Columbia location where they were eventually discovered by Missouri Natural Resources Department investigators.

Laird said he could not release the name of the former employee nor his partner.

Cris Burnam, president of Storage Mart, said it is against corporate policy to disclose the names of individuals renting space at any of their facilities, but noted that any lease at Storage Mart would prohibit potentially hazardous materials including the gas cylinders. He declined further comment saying, "Corporate policy is not to comment on an on-going investigation."

Upon discovering the former employee's misuse of the cylinders, Laird said he contacted the Environmental Protection Agency, which then contacted Missouri's Natural Resource Department.

On Jan. 27, department specialists Cindy Thompson and Alan Cortvrient conducted an initial assessment of the storage facility on Rangeline Street, according to documents from the Natural Resources Department. The following day, four more department specialists and investigators, as well as David Clark with the EPA, conducted a follow-up investigation.

While initial tests found no release of hazardous materials, according to the documents, investigators found several cylinders with hazardous materials markings. Umicore hired St. Louis-based Environmental Management Alternatives (EMA), represented by Peter Benoist, to remove and dispose of the cylinders.

"A total of 30 cylinders were observed, two were noted to contain some material by EMA personnel," according to the Natural Resources Department documents.

Laird, however, said that the cylinders would have been empty as Umicore in Oklahoma has not used the germane gas in years.

The containers were eventually delivered for disposal to Veolia RS Technical Solutions in Sauget, Ill., said Rob Huisinga, sales and service manager for Veolia. Some of the containers have been disposed, while others are still in the process, said Huisinga, who was unsure if any of the cylinders contained material.

Laird confirmed that the former employee and his partner are currently under investigation. The focus of the investigation is fraud, he said, not misuse of any hazardous materials.

"It is our full belief that this was fraud," he said, adding that he thinks "there was no untoward use" of the materials.

The employee was put on leave in December, Laird said, and was subsequently fired in January due to the investigation.

Umicore USA paid tens of thousands of dollars to SMC Environmental for disposal of the cylinders and other materials according to invoices received from the Natural Resources Department. Laird said Umicore has not yet recovered the money from the former employee or his partner, nor have they had any contact with the two.. It is his understanding that investigators have been in contact with the men, he said.

Umicore is also investigating other sites where the two men, working as SMC Environmental, may have been storing materials intended for disposal. Laird said his company is also looking into improper disposal of fluorescent lights in the Joplin area, while a number of other sites are under active investigation.

Umicore is cooperating fully with the U.S. Attorney's investigation, Laird said.