Company inspections decline due to Health Department staffing shortage

The Memphis-Shelby County Health Department is supposed to make sure the air we breathe stays clean. A nearly three year staffing shortage at the health department could have affected your health.

We are polluters, period! Everyday we poison the planet with aerosol cans, with our cars, and with companies that throw tons of potentially dangerous chemicals into the air. The Earth can take it, but only to a point. Which is why the federal government strictly limits the amount of "Hazardous Air Pollution," also called "HAP emissions," manufacturing plants or other facilities are allowed to pump out.

In Memphis and Shelby County, the Health Department's Pollution Control Division supposedly keeps an eye on more than 400 of what it calls "pollution sources" in our area. From small businesses to big refineries it enforces federal guidelines and issues permits only after regular inspections.

But an Action News Five investigation found, over the last three years, those inspections didn't always happen. Bill Smith, Pollution Control Supervisor said, "There were several years that inspections did not occur." Didn't occur, even at what the Department considers "major sources" of pollution, like "Allstates Fabricating Company" near Raleigh and "Shirlo Incorporated" in Memphis, which are supposed to be inspected every year. "There were no people available to do the work. (it's that simple?) That simple," making life difficult for the few inspectors the department did have.

At one point, pollution control officials admit there were just three inspectors doing the work of nine, forcing them to choose who got inspected and who didn't. Diane Arnst, Pollution Control Manager said, "What that meant was that for a few companies we did not discover their compliance problems until 2002. We may have been able to discover them earlier in 2001" By the time Pollution Control got around to inspecting "Allstates" in October of 2002, Health Department officials say the company hadn't been inspected in more than two-and-a-half years.

During that time, Health Department records show the company was in violation of its permit: using non-compliant paints and solvents, pumping more than it's share of certain volatile chemicals into the air for 27 months, and other hazardous pollutants for 13 months. Arnst said, "It could be said that they contributed to ozone formation." The kind of ozone the health department warns mid-southerners about, as it gets stuck in the sky on those scorching summer days.

There are actually two kinds of ozone. There's that good ozone layer we all know about that keeps the sun's harmful UV radiation out and keeps the air we breath in. But pollution creates a second ozone layer, bad ozone, that can cause a hole in the good layer sending all that clean air out into space. And it's that ground level ozone that can make people sick. But, department officials say they can't attribute any specific health problems to Allstates. Still without inspections, fail-safes like mandated quarterly compliance reports should have caught the violations. Thing is, documents show that 2002 inspection found Allstates hadn't filed reports in more than a year.

In the case of Shirlo Incorporated, which also went more than two years between inspections, the company exceeded it's emission limits for 29 months and failed to file annual federal compliance certifications, and semi-annual monitoring reports and emission reports. Ultimately the Health Department fined Allstates 90-thousand dollars and slapped Shirlo with more than 21-thousand dollars in fines. Officials from both declined our invitation to comment on this story, but we're told Allstates and Shirlo, are now operating in compliance with their permits.