by Barbara Brenner
Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch, has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the June 1999 issue of Whatcom Watch.
Editor’s Note: Initiative 1-99 was passed at the November 2, 1999, general election with 65.6 percent of the vote.
In November , voters will decide if acceptance of infectious medical waste in Whatcom County will be limited to the amount that is locally produced.a
On April 27, , one month ahead of the deadline, over 13,000 signatures were turned into the Whatcom County Auditor´s office to put this important issue before the voters. At least 8,564 signatures of county-registered voters were necessary to put Initiative 1-99 on the ballot.
At present, there is no limit on how much infectious waste can be imported into our county. Recomp, built to handle local municipal garbage, has been accepting over 300 tons per month of imported, infectious waste from Canada, California, and elsewhere.
Limiting Infectious Waste
Infectious medical waste comprises less than 0.3 percent of our municipal garbage (solid waste). Initiative 1-99 will limit the amount of infectious waste which can be accepted at any commercial treatment facility, including Recomp, to 0.3 percent of our solid waste stream. Initiative 1-99 will keep our community´s risk of exposure to infectious waste proportional to what we produce locally.
Presently, a Recomp worker has hepatitis C, which, his doctors believe, he contracted from handling infectious waste at the facility. He is not the first worker to make that claim. According to his attorney, Breean Beggs, “signed statements from workers report that workers routinely were required to handle leaking containers which dripped and splashed on their clothing. These containers contained raw biological waste. Workers reported that they were given inadequate safety materials, including regularly being denied masks, respirators, rubber boots, or adequate hand protection. Many workers report being stuck by needles, in addition they report being discouraged from filing labor and industry claims.”
In Washington state, workers made sick by sloppy handling practices at commercial infectious waste treatment facilities cannot sue their employers for gross negligence. They are destined to live out agonizing days in poverty.
Commercial infectious waste treatment facilities have virtually no liability regarding worker safety. The only incentive is maximizing profits, and that, according to the workers, is frequently done by cutting corners. Unfortunately, Whatcom County will reap the consequences. When workers are infected, their families and our community are exposed to greater risk of disease.
Last year, Washington state agencies, including Health, Ecology, and Labor and Industries, issued a position paper warning that the general public may face infection risk from infected workers at regional facilities. They stated there are limited local resources and expertise to adequately address the risks. They also reported that the greatest risk to waste workers is the aggregation of infectious waste at regional facilities.
Recomp has already been cited and fined for serious waste-handling violations which exposed its workers to health risks.
The greater the exposure, the bigger the risk. The larger the amounts of infectious waste imported into Whatcom County, the bigger the risk for the workers, and, ultimately, our community.
Initiative Needed to Reduce Risk
Initiative 1-99 will not solve the problem. However, it will keep the risks proportional until we have health officers and others who will represent the public interest and insure community stewardship. Whatcom County has already become a large-scale, international, infectious waste repository. There is no public benefit to that.
Presently, a Recomp worker has hepatitis C, which, his doctors believe, he contracted from handling infectious waste at the facility. He is not the first worker to make that claim according to his attorney, Breean Beggs, … .
Barbara Brenner has been a member of the Whatcom County Council since 1992.