Sunday, April 04, 2004

Cintas: Bad for workers and the Environment

EPA Set to Deregulate 3.8 billion chemically soaked shop towels

And speaking of regulatory changes that neglect worker and environmental safety.... The laundry giant Cintas is attempting to use its contributions to the Bush administration to save millions of dollars by deregulating the disposal of chemically laden shop rags. The EPA published a draft rule to exempt industrial laundry companies from federal hazardous and solid waste requirements for "shop towels" contaminated with toxic chemicals.
Last November the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to revise its rules regarding "industrial wipes" that sop up the harsh chemical solvents used to clean off automotive and printing equipment. Rags that are bought, used and then thrown out, are classified as "solid" or "hazardous" waste, therefore subject to thorough regulation. Leased and laundered rags, however, are not classified as hazardous waste unless they’re literally dripping with solvent. Regulation of such rags is left to states. Companies that manufacture, distribute and sell rags decry the double standard, pointing to a 1997 EPA report which stated that commercial laundering of rags produces 30 percent more solid waste (in this case, "sludge") than outright disposal.
The EPA rule would permanently exempt the chemical solvent rags from federal hazardous and solid waste regulations. According to EPA's own research, as many as 164,000 businesses in the U.S. use about 3.8 billion shop towels soaked in toxic solvents each year.

At a recent hearing on the EPA proposal, Cintas driver Mark Fragola told of the health effects he is suffering from exposure to the rags:
At the age of 31, Mark Fragola has already undergone two major surgeries and spent weeks recuperating from painful procedures on his sinus cavities. He no longer has a sense of smell and may suffer from respiratory ailments for the rest of his life. He has lost his sense of security in his own health, and he lives with the uncertainty of whether his acute conditions will return. He has incurred thousands of dollars in medical expenses and still carries debt from these services. Mark and his physician believe that his poor health is the result of exposure to toxins and hazardous substances during his employment with Cintas Corp. as a sales representative and driver in Branford, Connecticut.
The labor union UNITE has been locked in a fierce organizing battle with Cintas, the nation's largest industrial laundry. The company supplies uniforms to over 500,000 businesses, and it employs 27,000 workers. Cintas is the 13th-largest donor to Republican congressional candidates, chipping in $109,000 last year, according to CRP.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) also testified at the hearing, review Cintas's sorry environmental record:
In 2000, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection sued the Cintas' plant in Branford Connecticut, which is located in my district, for 250 violations of the Clean Water Act, which occurred between September 1994 and April 2000. These charges included excessive emissions of cancer-causing solvents like methylene chloride and tetrachloroethylene, other solvents such as methyl ethyl ketone, and metals such as lead and cadmium.

—"I believe EPA has an obligation to protect workers... workers who are trying to do their jobs."

Right now, Cintas awaits a pending trial to address these charges in our state's Superior Court. But we only need look to the company's environmental record elsewhere in the country to understand how seriously Cintas takes these alleged violations. In Michigan, for instance, Traverse City forced Cintas to stop handling shop towels in September, 2002, after 10 violations of the emission limits for organic solvents. Rather than come into compliance with city law, Cintas opted to move its operations to Grand Rapids, which has no limits required for wastewater contaminants or monitoring for toxic solvents.
Cintas has also received a number of OSHA citations.

For more information on the campaign click here. In addition, the EPA is accepting comments on its proposed rule changes until April 9. Write to the EPA and demand that it place the lives of workers and the integrity of the environment first. Click here to see a sample letter and for information on how to send a message to the EPA.