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State sues Gallo Glass over hazardous materials

A large crane and steel girders are alongside the Gallo Glass plant in January on South Santa Cruz Avenue.
A large crane and steel girders are alongside the Gallo Glass plant in January on South Santa Cruz Avenue. dnoda@modbee.com

Modesto’s Gallo Glass Co. will fight a hazardous-materials lawsuit made public Monday by California authorities who acknowledged that alleged violations do not harm consumers.

“The lawsuit has no merit,” reads a statement issued by Gallo Glass, the world’s largest single-site glass bottle producer. “We look forward to our day in court.”

State Department of Toxic Substances Control officials said in an interview that the plant illegally recycled hazardous dust laced with lead, arsenic, cadmium and selenium, all byproducts of bottle making, by adding the dust to other ingredients when forging new wine bottles,.

“We have no evidence that consuming wine (from those bottles) poses a health threat,” said Elisa Rothschild, the agency’s deputy director. Nor would people be exposed to danger from contact with pieces of glass should bottles break, said Keith Kihara, the agency’s enforcement supervisor.

The plant, which employs more than 800 people, prides itself on using state-of-the-art technology and “environmentally-friendly sustainable practices which the state is inexplicably challenging in this lawsuit,” reads the Gallo statement, issued through spokesman John Segale.

Kihara said state inspectors are under the impression that Gallo Glass stopped recycling the contaminated dust in May 2014. But the company’s statement suggests pride in finding new uses for otherwise spent material, rather than burying it in landfills, and refers to recycling practices as if they’re ongoing.

The dust is made of “the same raw materials used to make glass, so we use it instead of adding new raw materials,” the company’s statement says. The plant has been monitored for decades by an array of regulators from various agencies, Gallo said, and no inspector ever suggested something was amiss until this enforcement action.

The company’s website says about 45 percent of its bottles come from recycled glass, or used bottles that don’t go to dumps. Its glass, made in five oxygen-fired furnaces, meets the highest federal standard for safe packaging, the site says.

Gallo calls the dust substance “precipitate,” and state regulators often call it “sludge.” The plant every day produces tons, which is captured by air pollution equipment. The lawsuit says Gallo illegally stored it in an unpermitted tank; Kihara said it should have been taken to a landfill.

The company says material sitting in landfills “is in direct conflict with California’s recycling goals.”

The alleged violations were discovered during two inspections in 2009 and one in 2011, says the lawsuit, which was filed in Alameda County because that’s the location of the nearest office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Her office brings civil actions on behalf of state agencies.

Kihara acknowledged that the lawsuit, dated Friday, beats a five-year statute of limitations starting at the point alleged violations are detected. Negotiations for a settlement led to “a bit of an impasse, necessitating us filing the case,” he said.

He declined to say what the state has sought in settlement talks or what an appropriate fine might be. The lawsuit says violations can bring penalties of up to $25,000 for certain offenses, and the document lists several.

For example, the toxic substances agency alleges that Gallo improperly stored used oil, illegally discharged used oil “directly to a sewer” and disposed of used oil in a Kern County landfill that doesn’t take hazardous waste.

The lawsuit also says that Gallo Glass failed to minimize releases to the environment, failed to train workers and failed to properly report six fires from 2006 to 2011. They included a June 2008 fire that sent four employees to a hospital with smoke inhalation when lubricating oil in a machine area ignited; a September 2008 “homemade dry ice bomb” explosion that injured a worker; an August 2009 three-alarm fire that cracked an electric furnace, causing a leak of molten glass that started fires throughout a basement where combustible material was stored; and a June 2011 “major fire” that required five fire engines to extinguish.

Gallo says state officials, in talks stretching several years, “refused to provide us with any proposals and instead unilaterally cut off negotiations, deciding instead to sue us.”

The plant, built in 1958, manufactures all bottles used by E.&J. Gallo wines, plus other companies. Last year the company applied for a $4.7 million plant expansion.

Gallo Glass’ website says the plant has 2 million square feet of warehousing, maintains a truck fleet of 150 and produces four bottle colors.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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