Hazardous waste chief skirts law
November 14, 2012
By KAREN VELIE and DANIEL BLACKBURN
A contractor paid more than $400,000 annually by San Luis Obispo County’s Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) illegally transports hazardous wastes and has exposed taxpayers to huge fines by encouraging member public agencies to ignore state law, a CalCoastNews investigation shows.
Charles Tenborg, the IWMA’s hazardous waste disposal site manager, also owns ECO Solutions, a private waste disposal and management company recommended as a hazardous waste transporter by the IWMA.
In the mid-1990’s, Tenborg was fired for undisclosed reasons from his job with the San Luis Obispo County Environmental Health Certified Unified Program Agency (CUPA), which licenses the five household hazardous waste facilities.
He then formed ECO Solutions. His relationship with the IWMA started in 1997 when he was awarded a no-bid contract by IWMA manager William Worrell for $21,000 a year to run the Household Hazardous waste facilities at Cold Canyon and Chicago Grade landfills. Each year since, the IWMA board has voted to approve a new no-bid contract, with the latest totaling more than $400,000 for the management of the five county hazardous waste facilities.
In a recent interview with CalCoastNews, Worrell said Tenborg got the no-bid contracts because he was the most qualified for the job. However, as a public entity, the IWMA is required by law to put work of more than $15,000 out to bid and to avoid using public resources to support private business.
IWMA is a joint powers authority formed in 1994 to deal with state regulation of hazardous waste disposal requirements. All seven San Luis Obispo County cities, the county, and eight special districts are members, and officials of each entity are represented on its board of directors.
A primary responsibility of the authority is to plan for, suggest, and offer solutions to common waste problems through the creation and management of waste and recycling facilities. Currently, the IWMA asks generators of hazardous waste to utilize its transportation services.
“If you are a conditionally exempt small business and generate less than 27 gallons or 220 pounds of hazardous waste per month, we can provide hazardous waste collection and disposal service for you,” the IWMA says on its website.
However, staff at the IWMA said the public agency does not transport waste, though it does serve as a work generator for Tenborg’s private transport company.
State regulators require documentation of cradle-to-grave movement of waste materials of more than 50 pounds in any month, unless the entity is given a “small generator” status. This is designed to prevent the illegal disposal of hazardous wastes by transporters or waste facilities that fail to properly manage the waste.
The city of San Luis Obispo does not haul its own hazardous waste and regularly utilizes ECO Solutions as a transporter, city employees said.
Under reporting requirements, a “small” load of hazardous waste material — less than 220 pounds per month — can be exempted from state reporting regulations if it is hauled by a municipality itself after certification of the load’s weight.
City employees said Tenborg encourages municipalities to ignore reporting protocols by filling out IWMA forms that allege the municipality is a small generator because it self-transports; then, Tenborg transports the loads himself in violation of state law. He charges the city $2,000 to $3,000 for each load, and takes them to one of IWMA’s five household hazardous waste facilities — all managed by Tenborg. The materials are then supposed to be transported ultimately to a hazardous waste facility like the one located near Kettleman City.
Tenborg contends he stopped hauling hazardous waste for municipalities two years ago when IWMA manager Worrell said they needed to make sure cities claiming to be conditionally-exempt small waste generators moved their own waste.
Nevertheless, employees in San Luis Obispo, one of whom said his departments did not utilize Eco Solutions, said that the city does not transport hazardous waste because of the liability involved. City officials, however, still claim conditionally-exempt small waste generator status and rarely send reports to the state.
In this way, municipalities get bargain-basement pricing on their hazardous waste loads.
Keeping track of the hazardous waste and assuring that it is handled properly is difficult and time-consuming.
Data showing how much hazardous waste San Luis Obispo produces is convoluted, because the city also utilizes the services of more than 10 other haulers.
When asked, as manager of the county’s five hazardous waste facilities, how much waste the city of San Luis Obispo self-transported during the past month, Tenborg said he did not know and went on to explain what happens to waste after it arrives at the IWMA facilities.
“We manage it, pack it in drums and then transport it to the appropriate facility,” Tenborg said.
San Luis Obispo management’s response to a records request for hazardous waste manifests resulted in dozens of documents bearing the names of those transporters.
Of those manifests, only five had been sent to regulators during a three-year period of time, according to the Department of Hazardous Substance Control. Three other manifests the city delivered to regulators were not part of the city’s response to CalCoastNews’ records request — demonstrating the city’s failure to properly keep records in a specific file as required by law.
Tenborg’s and Worrell’s relationship dates back at least 15 years, and Worrell’s professional history has been similarly controversial.
Dozens of newspaper reports by the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times detail a long list of questionable activities by Worrell during his tenure in San Diego County. Some of those activities nearly bankrupted the county.
In 1990, Worrell arrived in California from Florida to become the deputy director of San Diego County’s solid waste division. He quickly began advocating for a $140 million “super-sized” recycling facility to be built in San Marcos. That facility was funded with taxpayer-backed bonds, and was conceived as a multi-jurisdictional destination point for refuse from numerous communities in the San Diego region.
A key feature of that plant was its supposed ability to handle disposal of plastic refuse. In the recycling of plastics, materials are first separated into types of plastics, ground into small pieces and then placed into a furnace so that it can be melted down and reused.
Construction of the plant was hugely controversial, and its approval came on the barest of vote margins by San Diego County’s Board of Supervisors.
Following its completion, costs to individual waste haulers rose rapidly, in part because of massive budget overruns. In addition, it was later discovered that Worrell had not even purchased a furnace to melt the plastic. During daylight hours, while members of the public looked on, workers sorted recyclables, but in the evening, plastics were shredded and later simply disposed in a landfill, said several waste company officials in San Diego County.
In less than 13 months, the plant was closed and subsequently dismantled, its parts sold for 10 cents on the dollar, according to a long series of articles in the Union-Tribune. San Diego County taxpayers continue to shoulder the bond indebtedness for that project.
In December 1993, Worrell was placed on administrative leave after auditors discovered a pattern of questionable management practices and the apparent misappropriation of county funds, according to the results of two investigations initiated by San Diego County officials.
Among the problems discovered by San Diego County was Worrell’s routine approval of fraudulent claims filed by private contractors working on the San Marcos “super dump.”
One top county official referred to Worrell’s shortcomings as “a pervasive default of responsibility through all levels of management in its solid waste division.”
The county’s controller’s office discovered that taxpayers had doled out $1.2 million to local businesses to develop innovative recycling programs, and that Worrell had failed to follow contractual requirements or monitor the grants’ expenditures.
Investigators also found that Worrell, who oversaw the recycling grant program, showed “little or no fiduciary responsibility” for the public funds he administered.
Worrell, faced with the threat of demotion, resigned his post in April 1994 amid a firestorm of controversy.
“I told them demotion was unacceptable, and I resigned instead,” Worrell said at the time.
But several county officials told the Union-Tribune that Worrell would have been fired had he not chosen to leave voluntarily.
Worrell was never charged with criminal activity and soon left for friendlier climes – San Luis Obispo County, where he was handed the top spot in the IWMA despite the controversy surrounding his stint in San Diego.