The Last Stop for Chemical Waste – Where Does Disposal End?
Science, wonderful science! Our lives are completely augmented by the advancements since the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Our species created technologies and industries to improve quality of life and average lifespan. We can thank R&D for our favorite clothes, amusement parks, vacations and even some foods. In reality, many of us wouldn’t even be here without medical advancements discovered through the scientific method. There is much to be thankful for, but there is a smear on the reputation of the industrial revolution… pollution.
Chemical Waste from Cradle to Grave, and Then Where?
When we’re looking from the perspective of a research lab, we track our hazardous materials from cradle to grave. We are responsible from the second the chemicals enter the site, and with best practices inventory management, we know where they are and when they expire. Hazardous materials are used and recycled until they are put into HazMat containers waiting for pickup by the chemical waste company.
The next stop for the chemical waste is a disposal site. The critically important disposal company makes decisions about how the materials will be stored so that they don’t escape into the community. So, who pays when this system breaks down?
The short answer is, it’s complicated. But we can look at a recent example of a chemical waste fire in the news to see who was affected.
Residents Heard Explosions and Saw Smoke
Last week, residents of Plainwell, MI were at work and at home when they heard what sounded like 4th of July fireworks. On Monday, around 3:00pm, the Plainwell Department of Public Safety addressed a fire and explosions at Drug and Laboratory Disposal, a local company that accepts hazardous waste from hospitals and university research facilities. The accident was an assault on the senses; community members heard the explosions, saw thick black smoke and smelled something foul in the air. Nearby residents were asked to leave the area. Unfortunately, the fire reignited overnight and the evacuation was extended.
A Fire Broke Out at the Chemical Waste Plant
What residents found out later was that employees were using chemicals that neutralized acid-based compounds in a routine procedure. If you are not familiar with neutralization reactions, remember when we neutralized acids in Chemistry 101, and the beaker felt warm to the touch? On an industrial scale, this procedure releases a tremendous amount of heat. This is when the fire started and spread to a wooden stairwell, spewing out smoke. First responders managed to put out the flames once and then again after the fire reignited. According to a release by the company:
“Drug & Laboratory Disposal, Inc. experienced a fire at its facility in Plainwell, MI today. Thanks to the quick and professional response of the emergency crews and our staff, the fire was contained to a limited portion of our processing area.”
The Widespread Effects of a Community Evacuation
While the dangers of hazardous waste are a clear and present danger, there were widespread effects of this disaster. People couldn’t return to their homes and they had to go to the Plainwell High School Gym with the American Red Cross lending an assist. A constant stream of hourly workers asked emergency crews when they could return to work because businesses were closed near the fire. After air and fire quality tests came back clear for many hours in a row, the evacuation was lifted and life could go on in Plainwell. However, citizens will be interested to learn the results of the current investigation when it concludes.
What Happens Next
At the site of the fire, safety officials will continue to make sure everything is safe, and an investigation will look into the responsibility for the accident. Thankfully no one was injured and the accident is in the clean-up stages. The company probably has some work ahead to reclaim a positive image, because as business savvy people know, word travels fast of this type of accident. And hopefully, just maybe, this can be taken as a reminder to all of us to check our closets for safety skeletons.