As many as 2,000 Georgia companies, schools, hospitals and individuals who paid a local company to dispose of hazardous waste might have to pay again now that the company - Alternate Energy Resources - is bankrupt.
It might not seem fair, but it's the law.
Just as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 1980 Superfund law made generators of hazardous waste responsible for its ultimate disposition, Georgia has a comparable state law on its books.
And the state Environmental Protection Division doesn't hesitate to use it.
"It's probably not all that fair, but it's not unfair either," said Tim Cash, manager of the department's hazardous sites response program.
Georgia's Superfund, which has a balance of about $18 million, was created to finance cleanup of toxic waste when site operators vanish or declare bankruptcy.
"It's funded by civil penalties and fees we collect on hazardous and solid waste," Mr. Cash said. "If you generate, treat, store or dispose of a hazardous waste in Georgia, you pay a per-ton fee on that waste."
But a provision of that law requires investigators to go after the generators of the waste before Superfund dollars can be expended.
Alternate Energy Resources, once a licensed hazardous waste disposal company, is a classic example.
"They operated a hazardous waste facility and had a permit to receive and recycle," Mr. Cash said. "A lot of people sent waste there, almost 2,000 we know of: big corporations, people, any sector you could think of."
When the company went bankrupt two years ago, it left behind a costly environmental mess - and an abundant supply of records confiscated by EPD.
"We use whatever records we find - computer hard drives, receipts and shipment documents - and send these generators notices informing them they are a potentially responsible party."
Those generators will be asked to contribute to cleanup costs before the state Superfund is tapped for the project. Payments by responsible parties help avoid depleting the Superfund, which collects only about $13 million a year, he said.
EPD crews have spent this spring removing more than 120 drums of industrial waste from the Alternate Energy site on Walden Drive.
The former operator, John R. Clain, has been charged with investment fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which contends that he misappropriated $960,000 from clients of his investment firm, St. James Asset Management Inc. Some of that money, which was supposed to be used to purchase securities, was allegedly funneled to Alternate Energy Resources.
The case against Mr. Clain is pending.
EPD also spent more than $665,000 extinguishing a fire at the defunct Mesena Road Landfill near Thomson in 1999 and later recovered portions of those costs from people and companies that had dumped there.
In December 1999, CCI Construction Corp. of Evans was forced to finance removal of 327 flatbed truckloads of debris it had dumped at an unauthorized disposal site in south Richmond County.
Although the company had paid the owner of the site to allow the dumping, it later was determined that the area was not an authorized landfill, and CCI was held responsible.
EPD investigators also are working to identify responsible parties who may have dumped waste at the Goldberg Brothers junkyard on Dan Bowles Road off Gordon Highway. The current cleanup effort is being financed through the state Superfund, and the estimated cost is about $8 million - making it one of the most expensive Superfund projects in Georgia.
The Goldberg site was created in the 1960s and thrived for decades until its owners declared bankruptcy, leaving behind a toxic soup of chemicals and garbage. However, efforts are being made to recover some of those costs from former clients of the site.
Generally, the intent of Superfund laws is to provide assurance that taxpayers won't always be held responsible for cleanups. It also forces generators of hazardous waste to be more responsible.
"It's not always a popular law, but it's made people a lot more conscientious about where they send their waste," Mr. Cash said. "But sometimes, no matter what you do, there's always a risk you'll send waste somewhere where it can come back on you."
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.