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County may watch landfill users

The proposal is one of several in the wake of an incident last month that sent six employees to Oak Hill Hospital's emergency room.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- Residents soon could lose unsupervised access to the Household Hazardous Wastes Center at the landfill in northwestern Hernando County.

County emergency and safety officials have recommended adding staff to monitor all visitors to the site, especially on the heaviest business days: Monday, Friday and Saturday. They plan to install security cameras to watch who enters and leaves the center, and to move hazardous waste collection drums away from public areas.

"We're budgeting for that stuff right now and trying to get prices on it," said Stephanie Burkhardt, assistant utilities director, who oversees the landfill.

Also in the works are increased hazardous materials operations training for landfill staff and more mock emergency drills at the landfill. Money for these items should be available from savings generated when the department stopped shipping trash to the Pasco County incinerator for disposal, Utilities Director Kay Adams said.

These recommendations, approved by County Administrator Paul McIntosh, come a month after six landfill employees wound up in the Oak Hill Hospital emergency room because they were exposed to noxious fumes created when an unknown person poured what is believed to be pesticides into a drum reserved for used gasoline.

The hospital had to evacuate its emergency room because of the fumes.

County workers compensation and safety specialist Jerry Haines said the proposed changes would have the benefit of not allowing untrained residents to mix chemicals that could have severe, negative reactions.

"If there's more residents bringing stuff in and setting it down, and they think they're trying to help when they're mixing things they shouldn't be mixing, they're really putting employees at risk," Haines said.

The potential for problems has risen with an increase in customer traffic, Burkhardt said. In the past five months, she said, the landfill has seen 31 percent more business than during the same period a year earlier.

And much of the business comes from smaller users who do not know all the intricacies of chemicals and hazardous waste disposal. That's why the staff needs to better control activities at the landfill, Burkhardt said.

Plans to move the collection drums already were in the works.

"Unfortunately, it was one of those things we just hadn't been able to do yet," Burkhardt said.

Adams said the training and frequent drills, along with new operating procedures to deal with hazardous waste emergencies, should keep safety in the forefront of each employee's mind.

"I think people just get a level of complacency," she said. "They work with it every day and get into a groove. They just forget what could happen."

Commissioner Betty Whitehouse, who has called for the creation of a county hazardous materials response team -- another recommendation from the administration -- said the proposals make sense. Few people know how much hazardous waste goes through the county daily, she said, and the government needs to be prepared.

"We always have to have a good respect for any potential danger," Whitehouse said.

Improvements to the landfill procedures dealing with hazardous waste also could be applied to other departments that frequently deal with chemicals, such as mosquito control and parks, Burkhardt said.

In fact, the administration also is recommending routine inspections of all county facilities to ensure that chemicals are stored properly. A county safety committee has been established to deal with employee and public safety issues including training and procedures.

Fire Rescue and Emergency Management leaders are developing a process for coordinating the command of future emergencies involving hazardous materials, and the staff has begun looking into the pros and cons of setting up a haz-mat response team.

"I feel comfortable that we have a handle on it," Deputy County Administrator Dick Radacky said. "I'll feel even more comfortable after the training is completed and the mock drills are conducted."

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