Bruno Suraci, an organic farmer who drives an electric car and recycles the waste from his New Haven painting company, recently got a call from a friend in California. He Googled his name and found it next to a Haz-mat sign—as the Public Enemy Number One of environmental investigators.
The news came from the state of Connecticut, which announced victory in a legal battle against Suraci (pictured with dolphin and daughter) and three New Haven businesses he runs. A judge ordered Suraci to pay $743,500 for alleged violations of state environmental rules.
Some headlines, Suraci said, gave the impression he was dumping paint in the Quinnipiac River.
The truth, he said, is far from it.
“We never polluted,” Suraci said in an interview Tuesday at a downtown coffee shop. In fact, he said, the trouble started when he took extra steps to recycle waste.
In the interview, Suraci took the chance to give his side, in full, to the state’s depiction of him as an environmental outlaw; and to describe what he called a misplaced regulatory campaign that drove scads of good jobs out of New Haven.
Suraci said his property is cleaner than it was before his commercial painting company moved in in 2004. He said he built a $10 million company that recycled all of its waste—then saw that company fall to pieces as the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) dogged him for the past three years, running up hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal bills.
“What they did was destroy a business that was doing well—to no benefit to the environment,” Suraci said.
He said his company, which once employed 180 people in New Haven and Plainville, has shrunk to just 12 employees who work on Water Street, largely because of the prolonged battle with the DEEP. Suraci is appealing the judge’s decision. He said he is considering filing for personal bankruptcy, and may take his company to Virginia.
The State’s Version
The state’s complaint, filed in Superior Court by DEEP chief Dan Esty and Attorney General George Jepsen, names Bruno Suraci and three metal finishing companies—Suraci Incorporated, Suraci Metal Finishing LLC, Suraci Paint & Powder Coating LLC—he ran at two locations, 90 River St. and 1455 State St. The work involves sandblasting, spray-painting and powder-coating metal parts.
The complaint says Suraci failed to properly store and label hazardous waste; lacked permits regarding that waste; and failed to train his employees in how to handle the waste.
It does not allege Suraci dumped or spilled any pollutants into the ground, river or air near his business.
The court ordered Suraci and his businesses to pay $700,000 for violating of hazardous waste management statutes and regulations; $33,500 for violating air pollution control laws and regulations; and $10,000 for failure to obtain an emissions permit. The civil penatlies concerned the period from Sept. 9, 2010 to May 25, 2011. In a press release issued Jan. 3, the state held up Suraci’s case as evidence of a crackdown on polluters.
“This judgment sends a clear message that the actions of companies who violate these laws and regulations will not be tolerated,” said Esty in the release.
Suraci couched the tale as an “egregious attack of a small business here in Connecticut.”
In a statement issued Tuesday, the Office of the Attorney General refuted Suraci’s account.
“The judgment from the court was based on the overwhelming evidence of the defendants’ egregious environmental violations,” the statement read.
“The defendants chose to conduct their business by avoiding the costs associated with environmental compliance, which put the environment and public at risk while placing their competitors – companies operating in good-faith and in compliance with the law – at a disadvantage. The defendants had every opportunity to present their side in court and chose not to do so. The court reviewed the sworn testimony and evidence presented in this case and awarded the appropriate penalty and injunctive relief. We disagree with Mr. Suraci’s characterizations, and we believe the record in this case is clear.”
Nemerson Promises To Help
Suraci said the state won the judgement against him because he stopped showing up to court hearings. He stopped showing up because he couldn’t afford to pay lawyers any more, he said. He claimed he missed the hearing at which he was issued the fine because he was not notified in advance.
He said he may move what’s left of his company to Virginia to avoid more protracted battles with the DEEP.
He issued his own, four-page memo recounting his side of the story, entitled, “Suraci vs CT DEEP: The Real Story.” Click here to read it.
Reached Tuesday, Matthew Nemerson, the city’s new economic development chief, said he had not been briefed on the facts of the case, but would look into it and help Suraci if possible.
“As much as I love my friends at the state,” he said, “this doesn’t smell right.”
“In these situations, companies need to know that we’re going to go to the bat for them,” he said.
“Storage”? Or “Recycling”?
Suraci, who’s 45, grew up in North Haven. He founded his painting and metal finishing business 23 years ago with his brother, Marc. The business grew from a project in their dad’s barn into a business employing 180 people in New Haven and in Plainville. The New Haven portion migrated from the Marlin Firearms building over to River Street, where in 2004 it joined an effort to revive abandoned factory buildings in a light-industrial stretch of Fair Haven.
Suraci said he has always sought to be an environmentalist. He lives at Tuttle Ridge Farms, an organic farm in Durham that supplies New Haven restaurants and farmers markets. His wife owns the farm; he serves as the farm manager. He lit up as he described recently buying tomato seeds. In 2007, he bought one of the first hybrid cars to go on the market, the Mercury Mariner. He now drives a Chevy Volt, an electric car
He said his friends tease him as the environmentalist in the group. He would start every annual company meeting with the same question: “How can we reduce our footprint?”
Suraci said his metal-finishing company convinced the New Haven branch of the U.S. Post Office to switch from wet paint to the more environmentally friendly powder paint, to paint its postal boxes. That change—which eliminates the use of volatile organic compounds—subsequently spread to the entire postal service, he said, earning a local postal official an award.
On Sept. 9, 2010, state DEEP officials stopped in for a visit, saying a former employee had sent them over, according to Suraci. Suraci said he welcomed them in.
The visitors cited “many serious hazardous waste statutory and regulatory violations,” according to an affidavit submitted in court.
Complaints included failure to obtain a federal Environmental Protection Agency number and notify the agency of hazardous waste. Without that number, the waste management is invisible to the EPA.
The DEEP concluded that rather than dispose of hazardous waste from painting, Suraci was “illegally storing it on site.”
Suraci saw it differently: What looked like illegal storage was actually a recycling system, he said.
He said he had set up a system by which the company would recycle the mineral spirits, a solvent used to clean paint. Instead of throwing out the solvent as hazardous waste, he would clean it and reuse it.
DEEP visitors spotted eight drums of solvent awaiting recycling. They said he had failed to mark it as hazardous waste. The DEEP said that the labeling of hazardous material is an “extremely important requirement,” because it prevents the substance from ending up in the municipal trash or waterways.
Suraci countered that the drums were not going to be thrown in a landfill—they would be recycled in-house.
While the DEEP found numerous violations of state regulations, it did not document any pollution into New Haven’s air, soil or waterways. The recommendations were largely designed to prevent spills and accidents and ensure regulators knew what was going on.
At first, the discussion appeared to be a friendly misunderstanding.
Then Suraci said he followed one piece of DEEP advice and ended up in much deeper trouble.
The DEEP suggested he get rid of some cans of paint that were older than one year, he said. The paint was still good, he said, but he “got rid of hundreds of gallons of good paint for no reason,” to appease the state. Suraci also agreed to label some substances “hazardous waste” before they were recycled.
After following the DEEP’s advice, he said, he got caught in more red tape. After he threw out the paint and relabeled recyclable materials “hazardous,” that pushed his company into a “large quantity generator (LQG) status.”
With the new status, he said, “we suddenly found ourselves out of compliance” because LQG companies are held to higher standards, and have to get extra permits. Then DEEP issued his companies a Notice of Violation. Within a few weeks, he said, his company had been thrown into a new state of costly environmental regulations, all without the company having caused any actual pollution.
The DEEP argued the regulations were key to keeping workers and the environment safe.
He said the regulations did not make sense for a company his size.
“I’m not G.E.,” he said. “We’re a small company. I recycle.”
Suraci said he spent the next three years devoting endless hours to trying to appease the DEEP, costing $440,000 in attorneys, consultants and environmental upgrades.
The DEEP argued it was addressing important violations that remained unaddressed from the September 2010 visit. Suraci said the DEEP got on his case about little details that were not harming anyone. He said as an organic farmer, he said; he is all for environmental regulation. But the regulations were not clear, he said: DEEP officials even disagreed internally on some guidelines, such as whether a paint stick classified as hazardous waste. At one point, he said, the company was required to test all of its trash before throwing it out—even paper cups from the office.
Seeking to follow DEEP regulations, he said, he at one point put all of his office trash in a garbage toter and labeled it as hazardous waste. Then he was stuck: Hazmat waste management companies wouldn’t take it, because it wasn’t really hazardous. But the DEEP said that once he had labeled it as hazardous, he couldn’t go back and change the label.
“We tried to do the right thing,” he said. “I was dumped on.”
He said he found it supremely frustrating trying to accommodate DEEP’s guidelines.
His relationship with the DEEP devolved. He stopped letting its representatives into the building unless he had a lawyer present. At one point, a DEEP investigator would take his lunch outside the building, waving to his employees. Suraci called it an act of intimidation. He felt he was being unfairly targeted.
“I used to go home in tears,” he said.
Suraci said the DEEP investigation ruined his business: It scared away customers who didn’t want to get caught up in trouble. And it sucked up financial resources and staff time, so that the company stopped doing any marketing for new customers. It wasn’t the only factor costing the company its customers—some, like Ives, folded, or moved out of state—but it was a major factor, he said. He said he employed two full-time staffers whose sole jobs were to deal with environmental regulations.
Suraci stopped paying himself a salary three years ago. The hardest part of the last three years was when he laid off 63 people, sitting down with each of them over the course of one heart-breaking week, he said.
Laid-off employees blamed him, asking how they would afford to put their kids through college.
One day about a year ago, Suraci said, he gave up trying to cooperate with the DEEP.
“I can’t do it anymore,” he recalled concluding. “I’m running out of money.”
He couldn’t afford to pay his lawyers anymore. So he stopped showing up to court and decided to just let investigators do what they would.
Based on the state investigation, Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger issued a judgment on Dec. 24 charging Suraci and his companies with the nearly $750,000 fine. The civil penalty was based on allegations stemming from the time period of Sept. 9, 2010, to May 25, 2011. The court also issued an injunctive order directing Suraci to comply with environmental laws. (He said he has passed his recent inspections.)
He said he has closed two of his businesses. Only Suraci Paint & Powder Coating LLC remains, with 12 employees. That business has no assets, he said, so he has no idea how the state expects to get a $750,000 fine.
“The state will get nothing because there’s nothing left,” he said.
He said he poured the last two decades into the company, which he founded at age 20. He would put in 80-hour weeks. Amid his disappointment at the company’s demise, he chuckled at the irony of the situation: To pay for the alleged environmental violations, would the government seize his electric car? Or his hybrid car?
He said he is now planning to appeal the court’s decision.
As the case plays out in court, Suraci said he’s now left grappling with an uncertain future.
“Here we are. It’s over,” he said. His $10 million company is now worth “a couple hundred thousand.”
“Now what do we do?” he said. “I battle that every morning.”
He said he is hesitant to rebuild a business in Connecticut because he doesn’t want to be dogged by the DEEP again.
He said most of his customers are now out of state, mainly near New Jersey. He’s considering pulling up stakes and moving the company to Virginia. But his wife’s farm and family are here.
“I don’t want to uproot my family,” he said.
Helen Rosenberg, the deputy city economic development chief who has poured her energy into reviving River Street as a commercial district, called the situation “unfortunate.”
She said the city does not get involved in disputes between businesses and state environmental investigators. She questioned what the city could do at this point to save Suraci’s business.
“Businesses come and go,” she said. “It doesn’t mean another business can’t locate there and do well.”
She said Suraci kept the building in great shape. “It’s a good building,” she said. If Suraci’s company leaves, she said, “I think there’ll be a good demand for a building like that.”