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Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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Southern Finishing defends action
In hazardous waste case

Friday, September 21, 2007

By SHAWN HOPKINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The president of Southern Finishing Co. Inc., which has pleaded guilty to a felony charge of keeping hazardous waste at its Martinsville location, said Thursday that the case was based on a misunderstanding and the waste has been cleaned up.

The Stoneville, N.C.-based company pleaded guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Danville to a felony violation of the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA).

Southern Finishing manufactures wood and metal components for the furniture and cabinet industry. It had about 74 employees at its Martinsville plant in 2006, according to the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp.

According to a release from the U.S. Attorney's Office, from January 2002 to April 2004, the company allegedly accumulated a large amount of 55-gallon drums containing hazardous waste, such as waste paint, solvents and finishes, at its plant on East Church Street and stored the waste without a permit to do so.

In June 2003, the company allegedly received a shipment of a metal-coating material that contained hazardous air pollutants and later learned applying such coatings is prohibited by the Federal Clean Air Act, but it stored them illegally at the plant, according to the release.

More than 150 55-gallon drums of hazardous waste were found on the site and some were in poor condition or leaking, according to the charge filed in the court, the release stated.

Ed Brown, company president, said the company has been in businesses for 30 years and it has not had other similar violations, he said. When Southern Finishing moved an operation to Martinsville in 2001, it assumed the same practices and procedures would apply here as in North Carolina, he said.

Brown said the company was "shocked" to find out practices it thought were appropriate based on its North Carolina business were not appropriate here and when federal environmental investigators got involved.

Although the government said the company had been hiding hazardous waste on the property, Brown said the company considered the materials "inventory" that it planned to use.

"We didn't feel like we were talking about hazardous waste," he said.

Although the company disagreed, he said the plea agreement eventually was worked out because it would have been more costly to contest the charge than the potential $500,000 fine. Also, the company wanted to be in compliance, he said.

Southern Finishing, which, according to its Web site, has plants and other facilities in Stoneville and a warehouse in Arizona, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars mitigating the situation and has been in compliance for several months, Brown said.

"We're fully in compliance at this point," he said.

Environmental Protection Agency Press Officer Roxanne Smith confirmed that the site has been cleared up. She added that the EPA is not aware of any lingering health issues related to the case.

Southern Finishing could face a fine of up to $500,000 for the violation, but according to a plea agreement, the government and the company have agreed on a $200,000 fine and three years of probation.

The probation contains several stipulations, including that Southern Finishing will: spend at least $250,000 creating an "Environmental Management System" designed to maintain compliance at all of its plants; the creation of environmental compliance manual that was due to be created by the end of July 2007; ensuring there is a system for employees to report noncompliance; having annual independent environmental audits at all its facilities; complying with inspections; terminating employees who fail to comply with company, state or federal environmental requirements; and accept warrantless searches and seizures at its plants.

Senior District Judge Jackson L. Kiser of Martinsville scheduled a sentencing hearing in the case for Dec. 7 in Danville.


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