LAMC fined for improper waste disposal

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By Gabriel Vasquez

Improper disposal of infectious waste goes hand-in-hand with hefty fines from the New Mexico Environment Department.

No place knows better than Los Alamos Medical Center, which was issued a $51,250 penalty by the state Tuesday for three violations of the Solid Waste Act occurring from October 2006 through January 2007.

The inspections determined the hospital attempted to improperly dispose infectious waste at the county landfill – including two human placentas with attached umbilical cords, vials of blood, gauze, bedding, plastic tubing and needles.

“These are what we refer to as severe to major (violations), the most egregious type,” said Auralie Ashley-Marx, chief of the Solid Waste Bureau of the New Mexico Environment Department.

The Solid Waste Act and New Mexico Solid Waste Rules bar the hospital from disposing of infectious waste at landfills. The potentially hazardous waste must be sterilized by an autoclave or by other means prior to disposal to prevent potential disease from spreading

“The concern with this is that it is potentially infectious material,” Ashley-Marx said. “Bags could be contaminated with hepatitis or blood-born illness.”

The health concerns, specifically, are for landfill employees and other solid waste workers that come in contact with the trash, Ashley-Marx said.

Although the dumping occurred more than a year ago, NMED Secretary Ron Curry said LAMC’s failure to properly dispose of the infectious material was “disconcerting” and “represents a breakdown of necessary operational procedures.”

The Solid Waste Bureau discovered the violations as a result of beefed-up inspection efforts in 2006 and 2007 that focused on teaching landfill employees how to properly conduct waste screening for harmful waste.

“We realized after we had a few of these cases that we had to supplement our training to solid waste workers,” Ashley-Marx said. “After we held this specific training, that is when a lot of these particular cases were found.”

She added that as a result, the Los Alamos County solid waste division updated their screening process to be “more vigilant,” with increased evaluation of loads, random inspections, and focusing more on waste that came from hospital and other medical facilities.

LAMC CEO Sandra C. Podley said that since the inspections in late 2006 and early 2007, significant changes were made to prevent the mistakes from occurring again.

“LAMC immediately implemented corrective actions including extensive reeducation of hospital and non-hospital personnel, additional policy and procedure implementation, and a full-scale internal audit program to ensure future compliance,” Podley said in a prepared statement. “LAMC takes quality and process improvement extremely seriously.”

She added that recent waste loads have been “spot checked” on numerous occasions since the last violation in early 2007, and there have been no further violations reported.

The NMED’s Solid Waste Bureau assesses penalties handed out to medical facilities based on the gravity, volume and number of violations of the illegal dumping.

“We have a written penalty policy that we follow that includes the number of violations and a formula for their severity,” Ashley-Marx said.

Dumping violations involving infectious waste are not common throughout the state, Ashley-Marx said, but over the past two years there have been six or seven similar cases recorded in other hospitals and clinics. Any facility that deals with medical waste, including veterinarian offices, is a potential violator.

In mid-2007, Plains Regional Center Medical Center in Clovis was fined $4,500 for improperly disposing infectious waste. In two separate cases in 2006 and 2007, Christus/St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe was found to have dumped blood-soaked medical waste at a landfill outside of Santa Fe – which cost the hospital $55,000 in fines from NMED.

LAMC has 30 days to respond to NMED’s compliance order, and may request a public hearing. The order requires the hospital properly manage and dispose of its infectious waste and pay the civil penalty.