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HAZMAT Program Stunk 'Til Army-Navy Team Struck

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M., May 30, 1997 – An old adage says you can tell a lot about an army by the garbage it leaves behind. When New Mexico state environmentalists got a whiff of White Sands garbage in 1994, they smelled a rat.

"You're generating too much hazardous waste," they told the commander -- and fined the range $100,000. The commander ordered everyone to work together to fix the problem. What resulted was the Joint Hazardous Material Minimization Center and significant cuts in hazardous material costs.

Like smaller, usually single-service operations, this joint effort between the Army and Navy issues and retrieves all hazardous materials and disposes of hazardous wastes. Products identified as hazardous range from household paint to laser printer toner cartridges. Everyone -- including contractors -- must abide by the rules.

"Our role is to minimize the use and waste of materials that are potentially harmful to the environment and/or people," said Thermon Smith, Army co-manager of the center.

"We better manage by reducing the amount of hazardous material in the field, getting people to take only what they need and, when possible, using substitute, nonhazardous materials," added Navy co-manager Tom Coleman.

"We reduce costs by reissuing partially used products," Coleman explained. "For example, if someone checks out five gallons of paint and uses three gallons, he returns the unused paint to us, which we can then reissue." The center issues these partially used products until they're used up and only then hands out new products.

All containers are bar-coded and scanned before issue and retrieval. Customers take with them a material safety data sheet. If they're caught using hazardous materials and don't have the authorization sheet, they can be cited, Coleman said.

A working group with representatives from the safety office, fire department and other support agencies meets monthly to look at new construction and maintenance projects and advises what materials should be used. It's a flexible system, however. Customers can suggest or test substitute products. For example, a motor pool and a maintenance shop are currently testing substitutes for Freon, the environmentally unfriendly gas used in older cooling systems.

"We encourage customers to bring in commercial products they find that are nonhazardous and work," Smith said.

The center uses a version of the Navy's Hazardous Inventory Control System to maintain a database but will convert this summer to the new Hazardous Substance Management System database adopted for use DoD-wide.

"The working group asked each organization on White Sands to identify their daily work processes and the hazardous materials they use," Smith said. "This information will be used to build the new database."

Obviously, not everyone's going to want to go along with the new rules, Coleman said. "The commander has to be behind hazardous waste management 100 percent," he said. "Lots of other bases are visiting to see our program, and the first thing I tell them is, 'You've got to talk to the boss.' People resist change, but the commander can enforce change and compliance."

They also use news releases, posters and other means to educate the White Sands population about hazardous material management. "Even salesmen are getting the word, now," Coleman said. "The Navy sent one here after telling him they couldn't buy his product unless we approved it."

In 1996, its first full year of operation, the center reduced the amount it spends on hazardous materials by $240,000. Recognizing the post's progress, New Mexico returned $35,000 of the original fine.

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