WASHINGTON - March 9 - Opponents of a Bush administration proposal to loosen federal safeguards for workers who regularly handle toxic chemicals will testify at a hearing today. The Sierra Club and UNITE jointly requested the hearing to urge the Bush administration to protect workers and the environment from toxic chemicals in industrial laundries. Today's hearing kicks off a month long comment period in which the public can register opinions about the draft rule with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
On Nov. 20, 2003, the Bush administration published the draft rule that opponents claim puts workers, communities and the environment at risk from toxic solvents.
"In the last three years, EPA has reversed course and proposed allowing industrial laundries to abuse workers and pollute waterways," said Eric Frumin, UNITE's Health and Safety Director. "Workers will get sick, toxic waste will enter our rivers and streams, and big laundry companies like Cintas Corp. will keep raking in the profits."
"The Bush administration should protect our communities from the poisonous chemicals coming from industrial laundries," said Ed Hopkins, the director of Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Program. "When laundries dump these chemicals into their wastewaters, it can cause serious air and water pollution. There is a better way. The administration should require industries to collect and recycle these toxic chemicals rather than allowing them to threaten workers' health and contaminate the environment."
The EPA draft rule would exempt industrial laundry companies from federal hazardous and solid waste requirements for shop towels contaminated with toxic chemicals. Many industries such as printing facilities and manufacturing shops use towels, which the EPA calls "industrial wipes," soaked in solvents to clean machinery and other equipment. The towels are then sent to industrial laundries where the cleaning process results in the discharging of toxic solvents directly into community sewage systems - and then into rivers and lakes. Along the way, laundry workers have to handle towels soaked in hazardous waste - often without even minimal protective equipment like rubber gloves or effective masks.
"We were never told about all the chemicals we were forced to handle, and never really warned about the toxic dangers from these chemicals," said Mark Fragola, of New Haven, CT, a former driver in Branford CT for Cintas Corp. "The towels were often in plastic bags dripping with solvent. Our supervisors knew all about this." According to his physician, Mr. Fragola developed severe breathing problems as a result of his exposure to his work environment. He eventually required surgery on his sinuses and spent two months in the hospital and at home under medical treatment.
"We know of many other laundry workers who have developed respiratory and skin problems as a result of the their exposure to the toxic chemicals found in shop towels," says Mr. Frumin. "The EPA must acknowledge the real hazards workers face as a result of these loopholes that they are prepared to legitimize with this rule."
The EPA's proposal will allow thousands of factories to ship as much as 100,000 tons of toxic solvents to industrial laundries. The nation's largest industrial laundry, Cintas Corp., has been found to have repeatedly violated its wastewater permits for toxic solvents and other wastewater contaminants in many of its laundries around the nation, sometimes at 20 times the permitted levels. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection has sued a Branford, CT, Cintas plant for 250 violations of the Clean Water Act between September 1994 and April 2000, including excessive emissions of cancer-causing solvents like methylene chloride and tetrachloroethylene. The case is currently before the Superior Court in Hartford.
OSHA has repeatedly cited the Branford plant for violations that can cause "death or serious physical harm," including serious lapses in worker training, hazardous material handling and protective equipment. Cintas plants throughout the country have been cited by OSHA for dozens of violations on chemical hazards and protective equipment.
"It's time for EPA to force the laundry industry and their customers to stop the unnecessary shipment of toxic chemicals that endanger workers and the public water supply," said Frumin. "We are tired of watching the Bush administration twist our laws to benefit corporate interests, and we demand that EPA withdraw this proposal." Frumin also urged EPA to reconsider the options which they have previously rejected, such as more collection/recycling of toxic solvents at factories, closed containers for transporting solvent-soaked towels, and better training of workers about the chemical hazards.
UNITE and the Sierra Club will continue to reach out to people who are concerned about the environment and health and safety in the workplace throughout the comment period, which ends April 9. "Americans need to register their opposition to this while they have the chance. Otherwise, we are giving bad corporate neighbors the green light to pollute our communities and expose workers to serious danger," concluded Hopkins.
For copies of the testimony, opportunities to interview experts and workers or other information, please contact Wendy Balazik 202.675.2383 (Sierra Club) or Amanda Cooper 212.332.9376 (UNITE).