A Lacey business fined $197,000 by the state Department of Ecology for illegal dumping of waste containing lead and arsenic down the toilet and outside the building, causing it to be listed as an active Toxic Cleanup Site, has relocated to downtown Chehalis.
Owner Bruce Justinen disputes nearly every word of the report prepared by investigators and alleges that state employees made up violations, falsely attributed statements to him in the report and misquoted him in a press release sent out last December. He told The Chronicle he plans to sue the state for libel and slander.
“We’re going to court because we want to know why,” Justinen said. “Nobody will tell us why. All because we were taking the lead shot that was going to go into landfills, taking it back and trying to recycle it so it could be reused instead of thrown away.
“Right now, there’s nothing there at that site, it’s all been re-filled in, it has bark on top of it, it shouldn’t be on that (Toxic Cleanup Site) list, but that’s the power the Department of Ecology has. That’s what you should be writing about.”
Justinen moved his business, Seasoft Scuba Gear, to 434 NW Prindle St. in Chehalis after an investigation by Ecology found him in violation of four Washington Administrative Codes for intentional mishandling of lead and arsenic waste. According to the report dated Dec. 10 of last year, Seasoft Scuba used reclaimed lead shot to make diving weights, but disposed of it by pouring it onto soil outside the building, down the toilet, or at his house.
Justinen stated in December that he would appeal the findings of state investigators, but did not do so during the allotted 30-day period. He told The Chronicle that he wrote out an appeal and gave it to an attorney he hired, but that miscommunication lead to it never being filed. He claims to have asked the state to reconsider, but they declined.
Ecology is pursuing legal action against Justinen in Thurston County Superior Court while cleanup continues at the Lacey location. Testing there showed as much as 61,000 milligrams of lead per kilogram of soil, according to the investigation, at least five times higher than the maximum allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Chehalis City Manager Jill Anderson said Tuesday that she was not aware of Ecology’s findings against Seasoft Scuba and would be surprised if any city staff member had known about it prior to granting Justinen a Chehalis business license. She recalled a meeting with Justinen where he referred to his business as a “sewing operation” and that while he mentioned losing his lease in Lacey, he did not disclose why that happened.
“If we would have known in advance, we probably would have gotten some legal counsel as to what we could or couldn’t do,” Anderson said. “The fact of whether he’s doing what he’s permitted to do in that location, or if he’s going above and beyond … the city isn’t trying to shut businesses down unless they’re breaking the law.”
The investigation by Ecology found that actions taken by Seasoft Scuba at the Lacey location willfully and intentionally placed workers and the environment in harm's way. It charged Justinen and the business with failing to send dangerous waste to a permitted facility, to meet the requirements for transporting dangerous waste, to take proper action to mitigate spills or discharges, and to follow required procedures for hazardous waste.
Inspectors reported finding lead dust throughout the Lacey warehouse, including on merchandise and areas where food was consumed, during visits in June and July of 2018. According to the Notice of Penalty filed on Dec. 10, Justinen told Ecology staff members that “the water from cleaning reclaimed lead shot is routinely disposed of to the soil on the north side of the building or down the toilet.”
Justinen claims to have never said those words and that he never spoke to investigators in person. He was in New Mexico at the time and said that his employees made mistakes, because they became impatient.
“A lot of times, I hire ex-convicts and give them a chance to start life over again,” Justinen said. “What we would do is, when we cleaned the lead shot, the lead water would settle in the bottom (of a barrel) and then we’d siphon the clear water off, take the lead at the bottom and either sell it or take it to be properly disposed of. Those guys didn’t want to wait for the water to settle, so they siphoned the gray water out onto the ground. The geologist who was supervising the cleanup for the landlord said he estimated there were two or three 12-gauge shotgun shells worth of lead in the whole cleanup.”
Investigators also found that, at Justinen’s direction, Seasoft Scuba employees had recently taken an unknown amount of hazardous waste to Justinen’s home as well as to a permitted facility in Thurston County, which did not have any record of receiving waste from Seasoft Scuba prior to June 22, 2018.
Dave Bennett, communications manager for the Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction program at Ecology, told The Chronicle that the latest information indicates the company is purchasing already-cleaned lead pellets to manufacture diving weights. It is not registered with Ecology as a generator of hazardous waste at its new location.
Justinen accuses Bennett of willfully changing a quote he provided for a press release sent out on Dec. 11. He also claims Bennett ignored test results showing blood tests performed on employees showed normal levels of lead in their systems.
Bennett told The Chronicle on Tuesday that in his opinion, Seasoft Scuba and Justinen deserved increased scrutiny from state regulators for as long as the business remains in operation.
“Accidents happen, but there was no accident here,” Bennett said. “We don’t see something like this very often. This was a complete disregard for human health and the environment. Seasoft’s actions were intentional and resulted in what we would consider egregious violations that had adverse effects on people and the environment. The company knew the risks of lead exposure and risked the safety of their employees and the environment.”
Ecology accepted the Lacey location into its Voluntary Cleanup Program in December. According to a review of steps taken at the site as of July 8, “further remedial action is necessary to clean up contamination at the site.”
The report goes on to state that during the initial investigation, facility staff reported that “cleanup of lead shot and dust both inside the building and outside the building would be completed using a combination of compressed air and a shop-vac. “There is potential that conducting cleanup using this method can distribute contamination into the air. If this was or is a standard practice for this facility, especially out in the parking lot area as indicated by Seasoft personnel, Ecology is concerned that there may also be contamination in places other than those areas where hazardous substances were directly released.”
Justinen claims that his landlord, scared of the potential listing of his property on the Toxic Cleanup Sites registry, told him to cease cleanup efforts and hired a professional agency to complete the work. He disagrees with the scope of what Ecology has asked for, which includes testing of the sewer and stormwater systems, claiming the total area of contamination totaled just one area measuring 350 square feet.
“We had a total of, some say less than one pound of lead, but our whole crime was having between 1-2 pounds of lead outside our doors that Ecology went after us for. We were stunned when they called us out of nowhere, we didn’t think we were going to be fined at all. Then they put out that libelous, slanderous, completely untrue press release. It was completely corrupt and untrue.”
A process server gave Justinen a copy of the state’s lawsuit against him on July 16, according to the Office of the Attorney General. It alleges that he did not submit an application for relief of sanctions with Ecology or appeal the penalty to the Pollution Control Hearings Board within 30 days of receiving the penalties.
The lawsuit also cites Justinen’s receipt of two certified letters this year demanding payment of the fine. Scans of postal service forms confirming receipt with Justinen’s signature are attached to the legal documents. Bennett told The Olympian in December that Ecology sent three certified letters to Justinen regarding the hazardous waste taken to his residence, but did not receive a response.
“I can’t speak exactly to what the Attorney General’s strategy is with things like this,” said Jeff Zenk, communications head for the Southwest Region of Ecology. “Other recourse would include placing liens on his property — that’s probably the most likely recourse.
“Rather than address the circumstances here, (Justinen) has chosen to move his operation and presumably continue doing what he’s been doing, which isn’t in compliance.”
Justinen says that he plans to argue in court that, for the portion of the report that he admits to, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime — that the severity, the company’s history with the state and its cooperation with the investigation did not warrant such a large fine.
He also points to other incidents that drew fines from Ecology, such as a $4,000 penalty levied against operators of a research vessel that spilled 558 gallons of diesel fuel into the Puget Sound, as examples of why his fine is illogical.
“They have to be pretty nervous right now,” Justinen said. “There’s a lot of people asking questions about this case. … The emperor is naked. There’s no answers for them.”