Burning Questions

Jean Morrell is finally getting an investigation into Browning-Ferris Industries' medical-waste incinerator.

It only took years of asking, a car chase involving her nephew, and two New Times staffers' being detained by Maricopa County security guards.

Morrell has been trying to get regulators' attention about the BFI incinerator at the Maricopa County Medical Center since problems there first became public knowledge. Concerns were first raised in 1989 when complaints from hospital employees and neighbors about fumes from the facility led to an investigation by the county and the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1996, the EPA and BFI settled a civil complaint regarding the incinerator for $125,000. BFI admitted no wrongdoing.

Morrell maintains that health hazards and violations continue at the facility, and she's taken her case to local, federal and state agencies.

Last week, Maricopa County, the state Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency were all investigating BFI about various concerns raised by Morrell, after repeated bureaucratic brush-offs.

Jean Morrell blames the smoke from the incinerator for a variety of negative health effects, including rotting teeth, internal lesions and lung damage.

Morrell moved out of her building near the hospital. "Anyone with any brains at all wouldn't want to live there," she says. She now lives with her sister, who cares for her.

But she hasn't given up her quest against BFI. Last week, her nephew Stephen Morrell, a Catholic priest, and two friends went by the facility and videotaped its operations.

BFI is not allowed under its contract to burn waste from outside the state at the facility. Stephen and Jean had both seen and photographed trucks with out-of-state plates at the facility, and barrels which were marked "Foreign Garbage" stored outside the incinerator.

Stephen and his friends wanted to document the presence of the barrels. While Stephen taped, BFI personnel took down the license plate number and called security. Maricopa County security guards then chased the men off the property in a county vehicle.

"It was clear that they had malicious intent," says Stephen Morrell, who was not wearing his clerical collar at the time. "I feel that they would have pulled us out of the car and tried to confiscate the camera and the tapes. Who knows what they would have done to us?"

When a reporter and a photographer from New Times went by the next day to check out the Morrells' story, they found out just what the guards would do.

Barrels clearly marked "Foreign Garbage" were stacked in plain view outside the incinerator. Other barrels, also marked "Foreign Garbage" and containing red bags of biohazardous material, were stacked on a loading ramp leading into the facility.

Mark Anderson, a supervisor with BFI, attempted to prevent the photographer from taking pictures of the barrels, and called hospital security. He refused to answer questions about the barrels or give his name.

Hospital security guards then arrived at the scene and, despite the New Times staffers' press identification, put both men in armlocks and forced them onto the hood of the security car. A guard confiscated a tape recorder from one of the staffers.

The New Times staffers were released and allowed to leave after Phoenix police officers arrived.

The security guards apologized for "coming on so strong," as one put it. The guard said they'd simply been told two people were causing a disturbance. "They made it sound like you were coming at them with knives or something," he said.

The county hospital's CEO, Frank Alvarez, also apologized after being contacted about the incident by New Times.

"I'm very sorry for the way it came down, evidently," Alvarez said. He said the matter was still under investigation.

BFI says its facility is operating within health standards and never burns out-of-state waste. Security was called in the two instances only for "protection," according to BFI officials.

Jim North, the facility's environmental manager, says the incinerator is within compliance and is safe.

"We don't burn anything from out of state. Nothing--nothing--comes to this facility for burning from out of state, at all, at any time, whatsoever," North says. "Oftentimes, we can't handle what Arizona produces, much less from out of state. We can't, and we don't."

The barrels marked "Foreign Garbage" are from out of state, North says, but they came into Arizona empty.

"We have an exchange program with California," North explains. "If we're running short on drums, they will haul drums for us."

The drums which contained waste and were loaded onto the incinerator's ramp, North says, were filled with county waste which was put into the empty drums. North also says that occasionally medical waste from out of state will be transferred at the Maricopa Medical Center to trucks headed to a facility in Utah.

North was unable to explain the out-of-state license plates.
Despite BFI's explanations, the incidents have sparked a new round of inquiries about the incinerator.

Scott Celley, Maricopa County spokesman, says the county is investigating the matter on several fronts, including whether BFI is in compliance with its contract.

"We are in the midst of an ongoing process that started a year ago [to monitor compliance]," Celley says.

Because of the most recent incidents, county officials are looking for any manifests at BFI's facility which show drop-offs from out of state, Celley says.

While saying that out-of-state license plates are common, Celley says the manifest would show a clear violation of the contract. If the county finds any suspicious manifests, or if BFI refuses to turn over any manifests, then the county "is not unwilling to consider terminating the contract," he says.

But until the incidents with Maricopa County security, Jean Morrell has had a tough time getting any action on her complaints.

A complaint earlier this year to the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health drew the following response:

"We have received your notice of alleged hazards against BFI," Derek Mullins, the director of ADOSH, wrote to Morrell. "[W]e have decided not to conduct an inspection because: as a result of a recent inspection on May 20, 1997, I believe that the hazard which you brought to our attention does not exist."

Mullins did not return a call for comment.
Morrell was finally transferred to the federal level earlier this summer, where she was informed her complaints would be investigated.

"I am sorry; there are so many different departments, federal, state and local," Gwen Eng, of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, apologized to Morrell in a phone conversation after her third round of complaints about the facility. "Hopefully, you've called the right people this time."

Now at least two federal agencies are following the case.
Brian Hasty, a state Department of Health employee who is doing the investigation for the federal agency, says he's been unable to find any violations of health standards or air quality by reviewing the county's records. But he says his investigation is continuing.

The Environmental Protection Agency is also investigating the matter, according to Mark Sims of the agency's San Francisco office.

The county's Environmental Services Division concluded its probe into Morrell's most recent complaint last week, which was not available at press time.

Celley says the county is doing the best it can in response to concerns about BFI, citing the yearlong inquiry into compliance with the contract.

"We have people here who do their jobs, who decide that things need to be looked at for whatever reason, who do due diligence to protect the people from those who'd ignore health and safety to make a buck," he says.

Jean Morrell, however, thinks it's taken long enough. She's beyond frustrated; now she's just angry.

"They know damn well they're guilty and have covered it up all along. They don't give one damn about human life," she says. "And then when they're finished using up your state, they just move on. It's just unadulterated greed, pure and simple.

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Chris Farnsworth