Photos Reveal A Polluter ... Or A Recycler?

DEEPDEEP’s take on this photograph: Scary open container of toxic waste that could burn workers’ skin.
Bruno Suraci’s take: Evidence that a green-minded businessman was following state orders to clean up his shop and dismantle his recycling operation.

Those two reads on one image—and on Connecticut’s pursuit of alleged polluters—arose as the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) presented the Independent with a slideshow of photos of Bruno Suraci’s painting businesses at 90 River St. and 1455 State St.

Facebook PhotoSuraci (pictured) last month emerged as Public Enemy Number One of state environmental investigators, who trumpeted victory in a drawn-out battle. Based on an investigation by the attorney general’s office and DEEP, a Superior Court judge ordered Suraci to pay $743,500 for alleged violations of state environmental rules.

In an interview last week with the Independent, Suraci, an organic farmer who drives an electric car, swung back at DEEP. Suraci said he had set up a system to recycle all of the waste from his painting company, but DEEP mischaracterized the recycling program as stockpiling hazardous waste, unfairly hounded him over regulations, and forced him out of business.

In response to Suraci’s remarks in the Independent, DEEP released a series of photos of alleged environmental violations. Suraci has since cleaned up the mess, which was documented in DEEP inspections in 2010 and 2011 at 90 River St. and 1455 State St. But DEEP Sanitary Engineer Michelle Gore argued the photos reveal “systematic noncompliance with the state’s waste laws”—and evidence of why the state is holding up Suraci as an example to others.

What do the photos show? That depends on the eye of the beholder. Tour the exhibit below and decide for yourself.

Exhibit 1

DEEP: Toxic waste in open containers.
Suraci: Old paint that dried up on the shelf.

This photo, taken on April 25, 2011, shows a “mix of paint contaminated with solvent” in open containers, Gore said.

Suraci countered that the DEEP opened the paint containers prior to photographing them. The paint dried up while it was sitting on the shelf, he said. Paint does that when air gets into the lid. He said he doesn’t regularly check every can of paint on the shelf, so sometimes it dries up without him noticing. When the DEEP entered the facility, “in fact the containers were closed and sealed and sitting on spill containment bibs,” Suraci said. He conceded that the old paint indeed is characterized as waste. But it’s not in danger of spilling on anyone or hurting anything, he said.

Exhibit 2

DEEP: Waste that should be tossed out.
Suraci: Solvent awaiting recycling.

Suraci said the blue machine in the picture is a Banks brand recycler that allowed him to reuse solvent instead of throw it out. The machine creates just a tiny bit of waste, dried paint, which is then collected in a big barrel and thrown out as hazardous waste. It greatly reduces the amount of waste from the business, Suraci said. Suraci said he had eight large bins of solvent awaiting recycling when DEEP made its first visit in September 2010. DEEP saw his operation and scored him for lacking a proper permit.

Whether or not Suraci needed a permit to recycle depends on a central topic of dispute: whether he was generating at least 2,200 pounds per month of waste.

Suraci said he was nowhere near that level of waste except for one month in which DEEP asked him to throw out some perfectly good paint because it had been sitting around for over one year; when he complied with that request, he inadvertently became a “large waste generator” and needed extra permits.

Gore countered that if a business aims to recycle materials, they need to be labeled and stored properly.

“If he had the intention of recycling it, he would have to have certain management practices in place showing it has value as recyclable material,” Gore said. “There is no indication that he intended to recycle it.”

Even recyclable materials can only be stored for up to one year, she added.

Exhibit 3

DEEP: Scary open container of toxic waste that could burn workers’ skin.
Suraci: A temporary, closed container that was headed to the hazardous-waste facility as part of a DEEP-commissioned cleanup.

The photo is perhaps the most dramatic of the bunch. It shows a tub containing “alkali waste” at 90 River St., according to Gore. The DEEP tested the liquid and found it had a PH of over 14, making it corrosive and harmful to humans if spilled. It was sitting in an open container, exposing workers to possible “solvent vapors,” Gore charged. It’s supposed to be kept in a closed container, then placed into a secondary container such as a plastic “spill palette.” It’s considered “toxic waste” but was not labeled as such, Gore said. If there had been a fire, Gore noted, firefighters could have been at risk. And workers could receive chemical burns if the liquid spilled, she argued. “This is a hazard to his workers’ health and safety.”

Of course the liquid has a high PH, Suraci said. It’s acid, he said. It came from an 600-gallon “acid etch” tank. The tank wasn’t waste, he said—it was part of the cleaning and metal-finishing process. The DEEP inspected the plant in September 2010 and asked Suraci to clean the liquid. So he drained the tank and got rid of the solidified “etch,” he said.

(Update: In response to NHI commenters—who pointed out that acids have a low PH—Suraci wrote in to say he misspoke when he was describing the liquid. The tank was full of “alkyd etch,” which is used to etch aluminum, he said. “This part of my business (plating part) wasn’t my expertise and is why I hired a 30 year veteran when we installed it to maintain and run the whole process,” he said.)

The scary-looking canister was actually closed when DEEP found it, Suraci alleged. He said DEEP took off the lid to photograph the contents, he said. The irony of the photo, Suraci said: Suraci actually called DEEP to visit the site to show that he was cleaning as the agency had requested. “Then this photo comes back to bite me.” Right after DEEP’s visit, Suraci properly disposed of the contents, he said.

Exhibit 4

DEEP: State-regulated solid waste that could blow into the river.
Suraci: Sand, proven to be free of toxins.

The photo shows “grit blast media” sitting outside at 90 River St., near the banks of the Quinnipiac River, Gore said. “Grit blast media” is used to blast old paint off of a metal surface. After the grit is blasted onto an object, it becomes a state-regulated solid waste, she said. “It shouldn’t be stored outside. If it is stored outside, it needs to be contained so that it doesn’t run off into surface water” or blow around.

Suraci countered that the material isn’t hazardous.

“It’s sand,” he said, “which we tested and proved to be not hazardous in any way.”

Gore conceded that the state tested the material and found “it didn’t contain federally toxic levels of any type of metal.” But she said it should not have been stored that way. “If it went into the river—that’s solid waste entering a waterway, which is against state statute,” she said. In the least, she argued, it would muddy the waters of the Q.

“I agree,” Suraci said Tuesday. He should have had a tarp covering the sand. He said the tarp blew off. But it isn’t as bad as it looks, he said, and he never polluted the Q.

Exhibit 5

DEEP: Corroded tanks that could leak toxic chemicals.
Suraci: Empty tanks that got some water in them due to a fire.

This photo, and those below, were taken at 1455 State St., a brick building where Suraci used to run part of his painting and metal finishing operation. Suraci ceased operations there in the wake of a fire in Thanksgiving of 2008, he said.

DEEP inspected on June 7, 2011, and cited him for failing to throw out hazardous material there. The first picture shows one of several drums. Some of the drums in the building were found to contain a hazardous mix of solvent and heavy metals, she said.

“The containers must be kept in good conditions,” Gore said. “These obviously are not. Liquid could leak out.”

Suraci said the drums at 1455 State St. were mostly empty. Workers used to lay a plank on top of them and use them as a saw horse. Because of the fire, rainwater got in the building and partially filled some of the drums, he said. Some of the rainwater may have had “trace amounts” of solvents, he said, but “if you drink it,” you’d probably be OK. He said the DEEP has not specified which drums it claims were toxic.

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s crummy,” Suraci said. “But it’s not toxic.”

Exhibit 6

DEEP: “Highly toxic” drums of “methyl ethyl ketone (MEK).”
Suraci: Some cans that someone dumped in the back of the business after it was abandoned.

As a co-owner of the building, Suraci said, “I should have cleaned it up.” But he said he didn’t put them there.

(Update: Suraci said Gore was mistaken: The drums had oil and anti-freeze in them. “We don’t use either one in our processes,” he wrote. The company doesn’t use MEK either, he said; it uses a less hazardous substitute.)

Exhibit 7

DEEP: Rampant paint contamination.
Suraci: More empty drums.

“This is pretty awful,” said Gore. “It shows that there’s just paint contamination everywhere. Those drums aren’t labeled. There’s no containment” of “toxic material.”

Suraci said the drums weren’t labeled because there was nothing in them. After the DEEP inspection, he said, he sold the drums in the building to a recycling company.

Exhibit 8

DEEP: More “grit blast media” that should be contained.
Suraci: A pile of sand.

After the DEEP inspections, Suraci removed all of the pictured waste from the State Street building.

“Bad on us. We should’ve cleaned up the building sooner,” Suraci conceded.

But he said the cleanup was delayed in part because was prohibited from tampering with the interior of the building while he was arguing with the insurance company over who would pay for the fire damage.

The photos, Gore argued, show “systematic noncompliance with the state’s waste laws.”

“These are really flagrant and shocking violations for materials to be stored in such hap-hazard manner where they can impact the health” of workers, the environment and neighbors, said DEEP Spokesman Dennis Schain.

“Looking at these pictures, you would not think something like this would happen in CT,” he said.

Gore said Suraci has downsized his operation so drastically that he’s basically not producing any waste anymore. The DEEP has one outstanding issue with Suraci, Schain said, concerning whether he needs to get an air pollution permit. Suraci argues he doesn’t need one because his levels of emission are so low and because he keeps scrupulous records; DEEP argues he does need one because of the level of emissions his machines could potentially emit.

Suraci has appealed the court order. He said he aims to decide by March 1 whether to close his business or try to stay in town.

“If we’re staying,” he said, “we’ll put up a fight.”

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posted by: poetbum on January 22, 2014  4:29pm

This is a great article; very thought provoking.  If I were a judge I would have no idea how to decide this matter.

posted by: samadambrew on January 22, 2014  4:53pm

Exhibit 3 has some issues. An acid is anything with pH lower than 7. As this is being listed as higher than 7, it would be classified as alkaline or base (the opposite of an acid).

Additionally, the pH scale is usually limited to 1-14, and so a score of “above 14” seems highly improbable.

posted by: DrJay on January 22, 2014  5:17pm

samadambrew is correct that the substance in #3 is a strong alkali , probably lye , and quite dangerous. pH is a logarithmic scale, and common substances fall between 1 and 14, but above 14 is possible for a very strong base. No way it comes from an acid etching bath as claimed by Suracl. In fact, I find most of his explanations implausible .
Also, methyl ethyl ketone (the waste in the drums) is often used in illicit drug manufacturing.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on January 22, 2014  5:39pm

Great story Melissa!

Hard to imagine that there is no “there” there, and that this is all a State witch-hunt. But Suraci’s version of things along with the NHI’s account does make me wonder if this isn’t more properly a case of a power-mad inspector savaging a local business.

Any chance to hear from some other painting contractors, and/or some workplace safety professionals? Were these real dangers, or has someone made mountains out of molehills?

posted by: BenBerkowitz on January 22, 2014  6:58pm

Awesome article. These things are so hard to digest for those of us not in the know.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on January 22, 2014  7:52pm

I think we in Cedar Hill are still a bit shell shocked from this. (one of the locations being in Cedar Hill). He was a good neighbor when he was here. After the fire the property got a little blighted but was cleaned up. The photos are a bit damning. I am on the fence. I agree with Scooter.

HEY GORE!! Do us a favor I read that you are concerned with the air pollution….WELL WE IN CEDAR HILL have an issue with the smell in the summer coming from Kervits do they have one of those permits? The smell at night is breath taken and can be smelled all the way to upper state street sometimes. Please look into that..this is prior to them now making chloride on sight (which we in the community REALLY WANT A EARLY WARNING SYSTEM) and the desire for that is not just the spills they have had but the STINK we get in the summer from the place. We have complained to the city and to emergency management.

PS also team grant writers for Harp this is what you should target HOMELAND security grants for!

posted by: Proud New Havener on January 22, 2014  9:09pm

I don’t know with any certainty whether or not Suraci violated environmental regulations, but the pictures show a workplace in deplorable condition. Given the amount of shortcuts that were taken to not clean the workplace and keep it in good order, it is easy to imagine that shortcuts were taken with all of the hazardous waste created in his painting operation.

It is difficult to run a small business, and I am sad that the bar has to be so high, but small business owners need to be wary of neglecting their workplaces, and need to stay in compliance with DEEP, EPA & OSHA standards.

posted by: Wikus van de Merwe on January 22, 2014  9:37pm

All of the inspector’s claims appear legitimate to me.

Maybe a good resource the city could provide for local businesses is mock audits for compliance of health and safety laws so they can fix their problems before it gets this bad.

posted by: bruno7 on January 23, 2014  3:08am

The pictures are not of our work place they where from our old building where we suffered a fire and the pictures are after the fire happened. Our work place is very clean, 6s is what we called it.  My staff was mostly retired military people, GM was a 25yr Navy Chief of the Boat, HSE was a Marine and we had Army people as well through out our ranks.  They worked very hard at keeping our workplace in very good standing.

The DEEP took pictures but what isn’t present are all the pictures of when they first visited and prior to us complying with their orders.  The reason is if they showed those pictures it wouldn’t support their claims.  Instead opening up a drum while we are cleaning out a tank and taking a picture gives shock value but is misleading. They don’t show the pictures of our workers in full tyvek suits with masks and gloves doing the cleaning, workers all trained in this practice. Instead they present a picture of a barrel.

Secondly the pictures of our recycling were after we gathered all our five gallon collection cans that were covered from our work station and on the request of the DEEP inspector brought to the recycler machine that day. We usually pour those into a 55 gallon drum, which is depicted in the back of that photo.  That drum feeds the recycler and the cans are returned to the work station for future collection. The DEEP says those cans should be labeled HAZ waste because it may someday become that. We treated it as materials in process (which means the DEEP wouldn’t have a say in its use).  This argument is still not clear to our environmental consultants and the DEEP . now the cans say Haz waste for recycling and this was the DEEP’s agreement to a middle ground. The law is gray here and open for interpretation and this is my frustration. Many of these laws are like that and interpretation from one inspector to another and one consultant to another differ widely. 

What Ido know is we never spilled, polluted, contaminated anything.

posted by: robn on January 23, 2014  10:33am

Since the AG office chose not to investigate it, I’d like to see some investigative journalism about Mr. Suraci’s claim of a corrupt DEEP official.

PS Paint and paint removal is a messy business that produces waste and icky looking barrels. A still life of an open barrel says nothing about the context and the duration of its exposure to air (if indeed DEEP opened the barrels prior to photography, the photography is inflammatory and also moot)