Controversial industrial waste firm General Environmental Management (GEM) is closing

General Environmental Management, the industrial waste treatment firm which had a major explosion in April 2006, has told Ohio EPA and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District that it is closing down. An Ohio EPA report from May 8, 2008, just obtained by Ohio Citizen Action, quotes the company’s owners as saying they would stop taking waste around the week of May 18 and spend several months cleaning and dismantling the plant, while putting the property on the market. Officials of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which receives the wastewater from the facility, have also told Ohio Citizen Action that GEM has said it has stopped taking new wasteloads and is in a clean-up mode. The Sewer District will continue to monitor the facility.

The facility, located in the Flats just below the U.S. Post Office on Orange Road, has been a source of sickening odors and chemical emissions to its neighbors. The Cleveland Division of Fire, which cited the facility for numerous violations prior to the 2006 explosion, had taken photos showing pipes at GEM held together with duct tape.

On April 20, 2006, GEM had a huge explosion and three alarm-fire which sent five workers to the hospital with burns, rocked houses two miles away, and sent a chemical tank 150 feet in the air, according to eyewitnesses. The fire was apparently caused when the company ordered a worker to operate an acetylene torch while flammable liquids were being unloaded from a tank.

Ohio Citizen Action called for the facility to be closed permanently after the fire, and organized protests and public meetings. Fifteen hundred Ohio Citizen Action members wrote to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson urging him to keep the facility shut down.

After the April 2006 explosion, the Cleveland Division of Fire took GEM to Cleveland Municipal Housing Court, saying it should be shut down unless it could meet safety standards. The court allowed GEM to operate as long as it met certain conditions. Court documents filed on July 31, 2007 cited “changes in some circumstances, including an expressed intention by GEM to cease regulated operations on the premises” as a reason why the Division of Fire and GEM had not reached a negotiated settlement.

Although GEM was the biggest source of odor complaints to the City of Cleveland, the city never tested the air for chemical emissions. Ohio Citizen Action conducted its own air pollution tests in November 2005 and March 2006, documenting the presence of chemical solvents and hydrogen sulfide in the air. The firm claimed it was destroying the solvents in a “biotreatment unit,” but several experts, including University of Akron professor Dr. Teresa Cutright, observed that the unit was likely just stripping the solvents into the air. This conclusion was later validated by an investigation conducted by U.S. EPA Region 5 environmental scientist Erik Hardin.

In December 2007, the U.S. EPA charged GEM with violating the Clean Air Act, saying the facility had been improperly emitting hazardous air pollutants into the air for years. Enforcement action on that case is still pending.