MAX Environmental Investigated by EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement

This month, the Mountain Watershed Association (MWA) discovered that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been investigating MAX Environmental. MAX is a hazardous waste landfill and treatment center in Yukon, PA. The EPA requested that the National Enforcement Investigations Center (NEIC) conduct a compliance investigation of MAX. 

Over the years, residents have reported health impacts from living close to the hazardous waste center including reproductive issues, cancers, sickened pets and livestock. Mountain Watershed has received numerous notices of dust blowing off of the landfill and other air and water quality impacts from operations on the facility. In February of 2021, MAX received a violation from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for open burning. 

MAX has had serious compliance issues and has been listed as out of compliance with their water discharge permits for five of the past twelve quarters for effluent exceedances. As a hazardous waste landfill, exceedances, spills, and other violations have graver implications than the average municipal waste site. Many of the findings of the investigation have been suspected, experienced, or reported by residents for years, but this does not diminish the importance of NEIC’s discoveries, which are summarized below. 

Part 1: Hazardous waste is not treated properly and is putting Yukon at risk

While at MAX, EPA investigators toured the facility, interviewed personnel, and took samples from certain active areas. They took five grab samples from MAX’s only active landfill, landfill #6, which is not permitted for hazardous waste disposal. MAX is permitted only to treat hazardous waste, not to bury it onsite. They can hold it as long as it takes to treat and, as long as treatment was successful, they can then bury the safer waste onsite. 

However, all five samples taken from landfill #6 still qualified as hazardous waste due to exceedances of lead and cadmium. Lead is well known for its carcinogenic and developmental health impacts. Cadmium exposure can result in kidney failure, fragile bones, and is also considered a cancer-causing agent. One of the samples taken during the investigation had cadmium levels 1,300 times greater than the treatment standard. The NEIC stated, “This may indicate that portions of the waste batches disposed of in landfill No. 6 remained hazardous waste after treatment.” This raises a concern about whether MAX has been regularly burying waste on site that exceeds limits for contaminants.

Another concerning finding of the investigation regards waste exposure. While on site, inspectors found that MAX’s hazardous waste containment building does not operate as a completely enclosed hazardous waste management unit, as required. EPA noted large holes in the exterior walls that expose hazardous waste to the elements. One of the storage bays, where “large quantities of hazardous waste are stored,” did not have any barrier, wall, or door along one of its sides.

While the team was on site, a light drizzle fell from the sky. They observed “precipitation enter the containment building through the roof…and contact bulk, non-containerized hazardous waste. On the same day, [they] observed liquid that appeared to be stormwater on the ground inside.” For many years, residents of Yukon have described heavy dust blowing off the top of the landfill. Until now, it was hard to visualize exactly how MAX’s facilities may have contributed to this issue. 

Part 2: NEIC describes a facility that lacked adequate monitoring or maintenance, both of which could result in exposure risk

MAX, on average, receives five to 15 truckloads of waste (hazardous and non-hazardous) per day. Though their inbound waste volume seems to have decreased of late, due to landfill #6 nearing capacity, this is still a significant amount of material entering the site. Their permits, while imperfect, do have a series of stipulations and checks required of MAX in order to minimize the risks associated with handling this volume of wastes. 

While surveying the site, NEIC investigators observed MAX’s day-to-day operations. According to the report, they found that “MAX does not appear to be maintaining, or conducting required inspections of, the leak detection system of its hazardous waste containment building.” The reason for this lack of compliance is that MAX had buried its permitted leak detection system with backfill, rendering it inaccessible. As a workaround, MAX “visually inspects” the area. 

Similarly, MAX’s pH adjust tank — a mechanism used in removing metals from waste — is out of service. According to the report, this means “the facility is not getting complete treatment.” Such incomplete treatment could likely play a significant role in the fact that MAX regularly exceeds permitted limits discharged into Sewickley Creek. NEIC wrote, “not having the capability to increase the pH to a higher value normally seen in metals removal treatment systems… can result in exceedances of effluent limitations.”

Beyond finding inoperable equipment normally used for treating pH and detecting leaks, inspectors found a trough in the on-site industrial WWTP (wastewater treatment plant), with holes and not properly operated or maintained with “significant leaks.” NEIC also saw oily staining on the ground near a waste oil storage tank. Regulations require that waste oil storage tanks in PA must be in good condition and have no visible leaks. Max must ensure that releases of waste oil are properly cleaned up.

Of significant  concern was the revelation that waste materials lay on the ground outside of the hazardous waste treatment pits. Inspectors recorded visible gray lime and darker colored material that resembled the waste mixed in the pits. Investigators made a grim assessment: “the practice of driving vehicles into contact with waste piles… without any type of decontamination procedure is contributing to the release of hazardous waste.”

Some of these issues could possibly have been avoided or mitigated, had MAX been conducting more regular inspections. Instead, it was found that MAX was not conducting the required daily inspection of the waste containment building. MAX could also provide no documentation showing the requisite annual structural inspections were done for the secondary containment system. In addition, MAX did not appear to conduct adequate inspections of areas around the mechanical waste processing equipment. Material that appeared to be waste residue was observed on the floor underneath a former waste treatment unit. 

Part 3: MAX leaks waste it is not even allowed to store

NEIC personnel found a container that appeared to be actively leaking, which upon inspection contained a specific F039 hazardous waste. This consists of leachate which has come into contact with more than one restricted waste classified as “hazardous”. Because of the particularly hazardous waste it is exposed to, this waste cannot be treated and buried onsite. Max is instead required to truck it away to a special facility. Yet inspectors found that Max was not moving the waste offsite in the manner required and as it sat, the F039 waste appeared to be leaking. 

 MAX’s mishandling of F039 waste is especially concerning because MAX is seeking an exemption from F039 restrictions. If granted, they could bury this waste normally considered unsafe on site. However, this exemption  has not yet been granted. After interviewing the operator, NEIC discovered that MAX had, at one point, attempted to fix the leak but was unsuccessful. They were waiting until the container was drained to attempt to replace the faulty valve. So, MAX did not immediately address the leaking container and allowed hazardous waste to be released at a container storage area. 

Part 4: MAX repeatedly failed to comply with monitoring and reporting requirements

The final revelation noted in EPA’s report sheds some light on practices at MAX Environmental and serves as an alarm bell. For reference, when a truck full of waste arrives at MAX’s Yukon facility, MAX must analyze the waste for its constituents. This helps track what kinds of materials enter the site and may provide insight into how much (if at all) the waste must be processed and treated prior to disposal. 

A standard exists for this sampling to ensure analysis will best represent the profile of the delivery. Samples must be taken from a minimum of three locations evenly distributed along the container. Waste verification samples must be collected from a minimum of four locations spaced evenly within the tank, and the composite samples must be thoroughly mixed prior to delivery to the laboratory. In addition, samplers are required to use a sampling scoop or small sampling shovel for uniform, safe collection of hazardous waste samples.

Unfortunately, NEIC witnessed these sampling efforts and MAX failed to meet this required standard. MAX took only one sample from the incoming waste and instead of using a sampling scoop or sampling shovel, they used a hand to scoop a wad of hazardous waste from the pit. Their failure to take several samples could create skewed or cherry-picked results. It is also potentially unsafe for employees. NEIC said, “MAX operators were only using a nitrile-gloved hand to collect waste from the excavator bucket… given the nature of hazardous waste treated on site including sharp debris, [this practice] may be hazardous to the operator.”

NEIC also learned through document review that MAX took samples at Outfall 001, which discharges into Sewickley Creek, and did not report the results. If grab samples are collected by the permittee, the results must be reported. And lastly, NEIC notes that the Pollution Prevention Control plan required by the NPDES permit is incomplete/not current and either way it is not followed by MAX.

In summary, the US EPA report on MAX Environmental paints a picture of improperly handled and inadequately treated waste. Most, if not all, of these findings were suspected and discussed by residents of the town, long before the NEIC investigators toured the facility this past spring. However, this investigation provides a valuable window for those who are advocating for safety and responsibility around dangerous chemical storage and disposal. For decades, it has been difficult to determine exactly what practices are employed on the MAX Environmental facility, without being able to visit the site itself. Now, we have a better idea. 

Interested in getting involved? Curious about MAX Environmental or its impact on Sewickley Creek and the Youghiogheny River? Please feel free to reach out to or with any questions, comments, or concerns.