The owner of a defunct South Carolina company that hauled away lead waste from more than 100 firing ranges in 16 states has been indicted by a grand jury for violating the Clean Air Act (CAA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). If convicted, Glenn Welch of Welch Group Environmental faces up to 20 years in prison and more than $800,000 in fines against the company he once operated.
Here’s how Welch ended up in federal court.
A Checkered Past
Welch Environmental Group is headquartered in Belton, South Carolina—a state that has its own Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) program. Despite that, Welch Group came to the attention of federal OSHA in 2011 when it was cleaning up a shooting range in Delray Beach, Florida. According to OSHA, workers were overexposed to lead at more than 10 times the permissible exposure limit (PEL) while they cleaned up the range. The workers were permitted to dry-sweep the lead without proper respirator protection.
According to OSHA, Welch Group acknowledged that it knew about the lead standards although it was making almost no effort to comply with them. As a result, federal OSHA cited Welch Group for 11 willful violations of OSHA standards, 4 serious violations, and 2 nonserious violations carrying a total of $480,000 in proposed penalties. Federal OSHA also added Welch Group to its Severe Violators Enforcement Program.
South Carolina OSHA inspected Welch Group’s South Carolina operations beginning in 2010. That inspection resulted in another 13 serious, 1 willful, and 3 “other” citations against Welch, carrying $225,000 in proposed penalties.
The fines destroyed the business. After paying a portion of federal OSHA’s penalties, Welch told OSHA he was “no longer in business,” and the account was placed in collections.
After Welch Group’s workers swept up spent bullets at shooting ranges, they loaded them onto trucks bound for a wooded area in Fair Play, South Carolina. On arrival, the spent bullets were melted in an open cauldron using a kerosene jet heater. Workers used empty paint cans to scoop out the melted lead, creating 25-pound (lb) ingots to sell. As much as 10,000 to 15,000 lb of lead were processed in this way each week. In addition to exposing workers to dangerous levels of lead, the operation created an environmental mess. In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard to help clean up the Fair Play site.
They didn’t stop there. In July 2016, a federal grand jury handed down a five-count indictment against Welch and Welch Environmental Group for violations of both RCRA and the CAA. Both Welch and his defunct company are charged with storage and disposal of hazardous waste without a permit, which carries a maximum penalty of 5 years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of $50,000; and release of hazardous air pollutants, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000 for Glenn Welch and a maximum fine of $500,000 for Welch Environmental Group. And, that’s on top of the OSHA fines the company already cannot pay.
Glenn Welch looked good on the surface. As late as March 2015, he was listed as a “featured speaker” at a National Shooting Sports Foundation workshop on lead management and OSHA compliance. Welch had supposedly “revolutionized” the lead removal industry by inventing a way to safely separate lead from rubber backstops as well as creating “annual compliance agreements” with shooting ranges that supposedly allowed them to remain compliant with lead regulations. But all the while, he was running a careless operation that was exposing his own workers to dangerous lead levels and spreading that lead into the environment.
The indictment against Welch should serve as a warning for employers on multiple fronts. If your practices are shady, it could catch up to you in ways that can run you out of business and send you to jail—and one won’t necessarily protect you from the other!
For employers who are trying to do the right thing, it’s a warning to be aware of where you’re getting your advice and of who you’re hiring to work for you. If Glenn Welch was so flagrantly careless of his own OSHA and EPA compliance, what are the odds that the ranges he worked for received their money’s worth from those “annual compliance agreements?”
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