No one knows exactly what’s costing Akron schools and taxpayers $4,000.
The board members who unanimously voted for the appropriation know they are paying for something that weighs about 1,000 pounds. They also know it’s hazardous, more than 25 years old and at the bottom of a lawsuit — and a landfill — in Louisiana.
“It’s the gift that keeps giving,” board member Veronica Sims joked Monday before the unanimous board vote.
The $4,000 shields —at least for now — Akron schools from future costs and penalties as contributors to a Louisiana waste facility, formerly operated by Marine Shale Processors, as it develops plans to cleanse the land.
The 48-acre waste facility, bordered by a bayou and a major highway, shut down in 1996 when Marine Shale went belly up. That was partly due to a $6.5 million court settlement paid after the U.S. EPA and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality discovered that hazardous waste from across the country had been disposed at the site since 1985 and then, to some extent, incinerated in a 275-foot kiln for more than a decade without proper permits.
At the end of the school year in 1988, Akron schools put out a bid for a waste disposal company — now a liable party in the lawsuit — to cart off some expired chemicals sitting in a biology lab.
That’s the most plausible scenario that could have led to 1,000 pounds of hazardous materials originating in an Akron school ending up in a Louisiana landfill, according to Bob Boxler, program manager of the energy, environment, health and safety department at Akron schools.
Boxler said a local company that specializes in hazardous waste disposal most likely packaged and shipped the hazardous material to Louisiana.
“They know which disposal site can take certain chemicals. It’s not like they have free will,” he said. “They’re looking out for the most economical and compliant methods.”
Akron schools got rid of the waste but not the liability. So when the U.S. EPA and the state environmental agency bankrupted Marine Shale in litigation, someone had to pay to clean up the mess.
That someone is a consortium of disposal companies, like the one that hauled off the hazardous materials for Akron schools. The consortium is passing along a portion of the cost to the original owners of the hazardous waste. So, Akron schools and 7,664 other entities across the country are on the hook for various amounts of money.
A receipt for the $4,000 settlement doesn’t ensure that Akron schools won’t be asked to pay again, however.
General counsel Rhonda Porter considers another scenario, say 20 years down the road, when those 1,000 pounds of hazardous waste — or unknown waste elsewhere — might land in the middle of another lawsuit and subsequent court-ordered cleanup. The guilty party in that hypothetical case easily could come after Akron schools for another chunk of change.
“You can’t just throw that stuff away,” said Boxler, who has advised Porter throughout the matter. When a company is hired to dispose of the material properly, that doesn’t relinquish ownership.
“With hazardous waste, the generator owns it from cradle to grave,” Boxler said, even if the grave is exhumed. “We own it forever.”
And, if the material is moved again, Porter’s successor might be as shocked as she was when Akron schools received the bill.
“It sounded like extortion,” said Porter, who can add hazardous materials to the long list of evidence she has reviewed in her career.
“All of these school boards and small business are getting these letters and they’re surprised because they’ve never heard of Marine Shale processing,” said Chris Ratcliff, an attorney with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
Ratcliff said nearly $7 million from the court settlement is quickly being exhausted, so the consortium of liable companies is turning to the hazardous material generators, a list that includes Akron schools.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.