GWC’s Colin J. O’Malley Discusses Troubled Barrel Reconditioning Industry

Barrel Reconditioning
Colin J. O’Malley

GWC Partner Colin J. O’Malley was recently featured in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article examining the troubled industrial barrel reconditioning industry.

The newspaper looked at a decade’s worth of state and federal environmental and workplace records for 50 barrel recycling plants in six states: Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Texas, and California. The Journal Sentinel found that 35 of these plants had complaints and violations, including several with repeat offenses, though the companies were only rarely fined by regulators.

The industrial barrel reconditioning industry processes an estimated 27 million drums and totes annually for reuse and scrapping. The drums frequently have unidentified chemicals in them, which can lead to injuries and deaths.

Acme Barrel Lawsuit

Mr. O’Malley spoke about the industry based on expertise he acquired when he and fellow GWC attorney Michael A. Knobloch successfully represented multiple plaintiffs in a lawsuit over health problems linked to Chicago’s Acme Barrel plant. When Acme Barrel was running, it was thought to be the biggest barrel refurbishing plant in the country and possibly the world, processing more than 10,000 drums a day.

The plant was closed by the City of Chicago 15 years ago.  GWC later filed lawsuits on behalf of people who lived or worked near the plant and developed health issues from the exposure, including cancer.  The lawsuit was filed against the company that bought out Acme Barrel, but the heart of the case involved going after the companies that paid Acme to recondition their barrels.

Mr. O’ Malley and Mr. Knobloch went through thousands of pages of internal documents and were able to trace paint chip dust in people’s homes back to the plant. They ultimately obtained a multi-million-dollar settlement for 72 plaintiffs prior to trial.

Mr. O’Malley said that the barrel reconditioning industry tries to cultivate a “green” image, but the pressure these companies face to get rid of the chemicals in the barrels means that they frequently pollute the environment.

“The narrative has always been this is a recycling company,” said Mr. O’Malley. “It is not a recycling company.  It is an unlicensed hazardous waste facility masquerading as a barrel company.”

Mishandling of “Heavies”

Federal hazardous waste law states that a plastic or metal container is considered “empty” if it has an inch or less of residue in the bottom that cannot be dumped out, even if the chemicals are hazardous.

Barrels and totes with more than an inch of chemicals are classified as “heavies.” While many barrel reconditioning facilities have stated policies that they must send “heavies” back to the customers, some do not do this in practice. Mr. O’Malley said that companies send in partially full drums to recycling facilities knowing they will not be returned as “heavies” because the facilities do not want to lose the business.

“The (reconditioning company) has every possible motivation to deal with a heavy themselves,” Mr. O’Malley said. “You can see the temptation: ‘We could deal with all that headache (of sending it back) or we could pour it out, burn it twice, and deal with it ourselves.’ And that’s what they do.”

Some reconditioning facilities keep these items in a “heavies” section, even though it is illegal to store hazardous waste for any period of time without a license. The facilities then go through a mixing process to dispose of the chemicals, which can lead to explosions and other dangerous reactions.