EPA looking at Executive Recycling’s export practices
by Greg Avery, Denver Business Journal
21 November 2008 –
The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating a local electronics recycler featured in a “60 Minutes” exposé on computer recycling exports fueling an environmentally disastrous global black market.
The federal agency is examining the export practices of Englewood-based Executive Recycling Inc. amid allegations that computer monitors and TVs the company collected for recycling were exported illegally in several instances that pre-date the shipment that the CBS news magazine reported about Nov. 9.
The EPA’s Denver office sent investigators to Executive Recycling two months ago, and the investigation is ongoing.
“We’re still reviewing the information we got in the inspection, and we can’t say one way or the other what we’ve found,” said Eric Johnson, an investigator with the EPA’s Denver-based enforcement unit. “We’re still looking into it.”
Johnson also wouldn’t say what led the EPA to open its investigation.
State investigators tagged along with the EPA when it inspected Executive Recycling in September to determine whether the company’s Englewood sorting facility met Colorado environmental standards.
The site passed state inspection; EPA investigators focused on Executive Recycling’s import and export record, said Joyce Williams, an environmental enforcement officer with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The 4-year-old recycling business has offices in Englewood; Sioux City, Neb.; and Salt Lake City, plus affiliated stores in Arvada, Fort Collins and Carbondale that sell refurbished computers.
The screen glass from cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors and TVs is considered toxic waste if it’s exported for recycling. CRT glass contains high levels of lead and other chemicals that are prone to leaching. CRTs can be legally exported for recycling only if U.S. authorities are notified in advance and the receiving country authorizes the shipment.
“60 Minutes” reported that it followed a shipping container from Executive Recycling’s yard to Tacoma, Wash., and then across the Pacific Ocean to Hong Kong, a shipment that may have violated U.S. law and the international Basel Accord treaty on hazardous waste.
Executive Recycling CEO Brandon Richter has blamed the export of the container that was highlighted on “60 Minutes” on another company. Richter said his company felt comfortable the other company would handle the shipment legally, but said Executive Recycling later discovered forged documents that made the shipping container look like his company’s responsibility.
“We thought it was going to Canada or just to be sold here in the United States,” said Richter, emphasizing the CRT monitors and TVs were neatly packed and tested to be in working order before they were loaded on a shipping container a Canadian company had hired. “We thought it was intended for re-use.”
Richter didn’t answer questions about eight earlier shipments that a watchdog group alleges contained CRTs and were rejected as illegal at foreign ports.
Before the EPA and “60 Minutes” opened their investigations, others had been tracking international exports originating from Executive Recycling’s yard.
Environmental advocacy group Basel Action Network, a Seattle nonprofit whose “E-Steward” rating for ethical recycling is sought by many in the electronics-recycling industry, tracked 21 shipping containers from Executive Recycling locations to overseas ports between November 2007 and March 2008, said Jim Puckett, the group’s founder.
Basel Action Network asked authorities in those countries to inspect the arriving containers, and in eight of the cases — seven in Hong Kong and one in Peru — the containers were turned way for containing broken CRT computer monitors or television sets, Puckett said.
“These are cases where other legal authorities found the containers illegal for entry into their countries,” he said.
Puckett said he shared his organization’s findings about Executive Recycling and some electronics recyclers in other parts of the country with the Government Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, and later with “60 Minutes.”
Federal law requires anyone exporting CRTs commercially to register those exports with the EPA.
If the discarded CRTs are exported to be re-used in building new TVs or computers, federal rules require a one-time notification to the nearest regional EPA office, which covers the exporter for shipment to a specific port for a year, according to EPA rules.
The Denver regional office investigating Executive Recycling has found no CRT re-use export notifications from Executive Recycling, said Johnson, the EPA investigator.
If any CRTs destined for export don’t work or are broken, the shipment is legally considered hazardous waste under the EPA regulations. Given the lead contents of CRT glass and the potentially toxic process involved in recycling it, the EPA mandates that exporters notify the EPA and have the agency verify that the receiving country has authorized the shipment prior to the CRTs leaving U.S. shores for recycling.
Bob Tonetti, an EPA official who helped write the agency’s recycling enforcement guidelines, has given presentations to electronics-recycling industry gatherings explaining that a recycler is responsible for how others “downstream” in the recycling process handle material the recyclers collect, including when it’s shipped overseas.
“Export requires notification,” he said. “It’s not an excuse to say I didn’t make that decision.”
He wouldn’t speak specifically about Executive Recycling’s situation.
A scathing GAO report published in August blasted the EPA for lax enforcement and highlighted what GAO investigators called obvious violations of U.S. rules about CRT exports.
The Basel Action Network gave the GAO a spreadsheet of containers it’s tracked and information about specific instances where other countries rejected containers, including instances tied to Executive Recycling, Puckett said.
The GAO doesn’t name companies it investigated for its report. The agency turned over its findings — names and other evidence included — to the EPA for possible enforcement.
However, photos in the 67-page GAO report show a shipping container full of CRTs that was rejected at a foreign port, sent back to the United States and opened at the Port of Long Beach, Calif., by U.S. Customs officials. They found it included broken CRT monitors.
A shipping-container number in one image matches a container that Basel Action Network said it tracked from Executive Recycling’s yard to Hong Kong customs, where it was rejected.
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