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Waste handling

Wisconsin won a $360,000 fine against a hospital that improperly disposed of hazardous waste for three years. Above, standard landfills like Dane County's aren't equipped to keep hazardous waste out of the environment.

Wisconsin’s third-largest hospital disposed of hazardous waste for three years without taking proper precautions to prevent the materials from leaking into the environment, according to a court ruling.

The state won a court judgment of $360,000 from Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital in Milwaukee after an anonymous tip prompted a Department of Natural Resources investigation.

A Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge signed the judgment in September, and it was announced Tuesday by new Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat who beat Republican incumbent Brad Schimel in November after criticizing him for declining pollution enforcement.

A spokeswoman for Kaul said she couldn’t immediately say if the new attorney general was satisfied with the judgment that was reached during Schimel’s term.

Froedtert failed to properly dispose of pharmaceutical drugs, solvents and other waste that are threats to human health and the environment, Kaul said in a statement.

The judgment said the hospital was classified as a large quantity source of hazardous materials because on a monthly basis it could generate more than one kilogram — about 2.2 pounds — of “acute hazardous waste.”

Improper disposal of even small amounts of pharmaceuticals contributes to behavioral and sexual mutations in fish, amphibians and birds, Kaul said.

Solvents used in machine degreasing compounds, paint and glue can be human carcinogens, and they are linked to other serious health problems in reproductive systems and the nervous system.

Under state law, hazardous wastes must be carefully tracked and disposed of at facilities that take extra measures to prevent toxic material from leaking into the air, water or soil.

Disposing of hazardous wastes such as pharmaceuticals in an ordinary landfill can result in the chemicals escaping the site in liquids that are passed through publicly owned sewage treatment systems that aren’t equipped to remove them from wastewater that is dumped into rivers and lakes.

Froedtert issued a statement saying a healthy environment is important to the hospital and its community.

“When concerns were brought to our attention that Froedtert Hospital was not disposing of pharmaceutical hazardous waste according to DNR regulations, we took prompt action to correct the situation,” said the spokeswoman, Nalissa Wienke. “We improved our hazardous waste disposal program to confirm proper disposal of pharmaceutical hazardous waste in accordance with DNR requirements.”

Wienke said nobody from the hospital was available to answer questions about whether it had investigated and determined why regulations weren’t followed, what the annual cost of proper disposal was, or where the hazardous materials were taken before changes were made in 2016.

The violations began on Jan. 1, 2013, and continued into 2016 when the DNR inspected the hospital in response to an anonymous tip that had been provided to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It says Froedtert didn’t properly dispose of hazardous waste, train workers on handling it or employ anyone qualified to train staff on regulations. It also says the hospital didn’t properly scrutinize waste for hazardous materials, submit reports on efforts to minimize them, maintain records, mark containers, or create emergency plans.

In addition to violations involving disposal of solvents and pharmaceuticals that included arsenic compounds, the hospital also improperly stored light bulbs or tubes before recycling.

It’s not clear why Schimel didn’t announce the settlement when it was signed in September. A summary of enforcement actions was posted on the Department of Justice website in April. In October, a spokeswoman for Schimel told the State Journal the department would provide updated information, but it wasn’t provided.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.