Staffing shortage at the Health Department caused more than just major headaches

By Aaron Diamant

A staffing shortage at the Health Department caused more than just major headaches. It took three years to solve and could have made you sick. Throughout the Mid-South, hundreds of companies have permits to pump tons of hazardous chemicals into the air. The federal government decides how much is too much and sets limits for every permit. Those permits require inspections. But a Target Five investigation found over the last few years those inspections didn't always happen.

In our area, there are more than 400 facilities that send hazardous chemicals into the air. The Memphis and Shelby County Health Department's "Pollution Control Division" is supposed to keep an eye them. Especially, the sites that put out the most pollution. The health department calls them "major sources," which are supposed get inspected every year. But our investigation found between 2000 and 2003 not all of them did, because the Health Department had only three pollution control inspectors doing the work of nine. Bill Smith, Pollution Control said, "There were no people available to do the work. (it's that simple?) That simple."

By the time the health department finally got around to inspecting several of those "major sources" of pollution, some of them had been violating their permits, pumping too much potentially poisonous chemicals into the air for more than two years. Diane Arnst, Pollution Control said, "We prioritized we've tried to deal with the major sources first and work our way down." And there's still a lot of work to do, like digging out from under piles of paperwork to get to new permit applications and renewals.

The Memphis city dump, another "major pollution source," is one of the largest in Shelby County. It has the Health Department's blessing to operate under the terms of a permit that expired nearly three years ago. The department says the dump's renewal application is complete, but so far, no one's had a chance to verify what it says. The dump is just one of dozens of area facilities the health department allows to operate under expired permits. Bottom line: the department has been playing "catch up" for nearly three years when it comes to making sure the air we breath stays clean. Making matters worse, until recently, the department had a tough time finding more inspectors. Yvonne Madlock, Health Dept. Director said, "Probably more a matter of us not being able to attract good solid candidates."

Surveys of engineers working for private companies found health department engineers were, in fact, underpaid, starting between 36-thousand and 43-thousand dollars a year. Madlock said, "Clearly though people are interested in the direct dollar value they receive for the work that they do. So yes, we are attempting to assess by doing salary studies." After the initial study, those numbers got bumped up to 41-thousand to 51-thousand dollars a year depending on position and experience. Madlock added, "I don't think that those systems will ever prevent any individual from deciding that that's a far more lucrative offer on the outside." But since the new salary scale went into effect the department has hired five more inspectors and ramped up it's inspection schedule. Arnst said, "I am pleased that we are back on track with annual inspection and we are identifying enforcement issues and assisting companies get back into compliance with their pollution control standards to protect everyone here."

So far, the department has brought 26 companies back into compliance with their permits. And with one more inspector to be hired soon, pollution control officials expect to be completely caught up by spring. And we'll keep an eye on the Pollution Control Department. We'll check on inspections, and whether or not the Department meets that spring 2004 deadline to get caught up.