Kansas City Area Laboratory Owner Convicted of Illegally Storing Hazardous Waste
Lab Used Radioactive Material and Solvents
Yesterday, a federal judge found Ahmed el-Sherif, the owner, operator, and radiation safety officer for Beta Chem Laboratory in Lenexa, Kansas, guilty of illegally storing hazardous waste in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Attorney Stephen R. McAllister for the District of Kansas, and Jessica Taylor, Director of the Criminal Investigation Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Honorable Julie A. Robinson issued a written verdict following the trial, which took place in February 2018. El-Sherif wanted, and was permitted, to waive his right to a jury trial and the case was heard by Judge Robinson in what is known as a “bench trial.”
El-Sherif, a trained chemist of Leawood, Kansas, started Beta Chem in the mid-1990s after having worked at several other radioactive synthesis laboratories. He used radioactive Carbon-14 and solvents in his operation, under license by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE). KDHE has assumed regulatory authority for these purposes from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission under the Atomic Energy Act.
After Beta Chem was unable to provide KDHE with the required financial assurances regarding decommissioning the lab in the event that it was closed, KDHE inspected Beta Chem and discovered extensive radioactive contamination throughout the laboratory, including some parts of the lab with levels so high their instruments could not accurately read them. The radioactive contamination extended to the laboratory furniture, the equipment, including refrigerators, and containers of chemicals that were supposed to be non-radioactive. The next day, KDHE issued an Emergency Order of Suspension of License.
EPA conducted a hazardous waste inspection the same month, and subsequently notified el-Sherif of hazardous waste violations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). EPA also informed el-Sherif of his legal obligation to properly manage hazardous waste under RCRA. During the ensuing years, KDHE communicated with el-Sherif about the radioactive contamination at Beta Chem and they entered into a consent agreement in which he agreed to come up with a plan to remediate and dispose of the radioactive waste. While he engaged a number of consultants, el-Sherif never took any action to actually clean up the lab.
On October 4, 2013, after issuing an Emergency Order to Seize and Secure Radioactive Materials, KDHE took control of Beta Chem and secured the facility. EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division, assisted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, executed a search warrant at Beta Chem on January 22, 2014, where agents discovered numerous containers containing hazardous wastes and contaminated with radiation. EPA determined there to be 1,138 containers at the lab, of which 886 had intact manufacturer labels with no handwriting, which showed many of those to be hazardous. The other containers were field tested for hazardous characteristics before being disposed of. In total, EPA determined there to be over two hundred pounds of hazardous waste, some of which was acute hazardous waste. All of the containers tested were radioactive, and forty-five percent of the contents tested were radioactive.
EPA’s Superfund program spent over $760,000 to remove and dispose of the hazardous waste.
“The public expects and deserves that those in the business of using dangerous radioactive materials do so in compliance with law,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “This defendant breached that trust, deliberately disobeyed the law, and ignored requests by KDHE and EPA to bring his laboratory into compliance with statutes and regulations designed to protect the public and the environment.”
“For years, the defendant knowingly stored hazardous waste with no regard to the serious public health and environmental dangers it posed,” said Special Agent in Charge of EPA’s criminal enforcement program for the EPA Regions covering Kansas Jeff Martinez. “Even when told to stop his dangerous practice, Mr. el-Sherif continued to ignore the risks. Yesterday’s guilty verdict should send a clear message that EPA will hold accountable those who willfully violate the law.”
Acting Assistant Attorney General Wood and U.S. Attorney McAllister thanked the U.S. EPA and the FBI for their work in this investigation. This case is being prosecuted by the Environmental Crimes Section of the Department of Justice. Senior Counsel Krishna S. Dighe and Trial Attorney John E. Arbab with the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section in Washington, D.C., aided by Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Mattivi, are in charge of the prosecution.