Fargo could handle Ebola waste

Published 3:03 pm Saturday, November 8, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. — The Fargo operator of a medical waste incinerator would only accept Ebola-contaminated waste from other states after careful consideration, and it doesn’t currently have any plans to do so, company officials said.

Healthcare Environmental Services Inc. has received a few calls from nervous people since it appeared on a California Department of Public Health list of potential destinations for any Ebola-related waste, said Chad Wold, the company’s director.

“There is an element of hysteria out there. We’re doing our best to not encourage any more people thinking along those lines,” he said, noting that the company has decades of experience in disposing of medical waste.

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“We are not actively engaged in looking for Ebola-contaminated waste,” Wold said. “If someone outside the tri-state area desperately needs our help, we would consider it.”

Only six states have medical waste incinerators, according to health officials in California, which does not have any identified Ebola cases. Wold said the Fargo facility has not been contacted by the Salt Lake City company that works with California health officials, but that it has been contacted by companies in Indiana and Wisconsin that are putting together contingency plans for Ebola-related waste.

“We are not saying, ‘yes, we will accept it,’ ahead of time,” Wold said. “We are evaluating on a case-by-case basis.”

Healthcare Environmental Services has operated since 1978. In 2009, it became a subsidiary of Sanford Health, which has been designated by North Dakota’s Health Department to handle any Ebola cases. The Fargo incinerator handles about 6 million pounds of medical waste each year — enough to fill about six semitrailers each week, according to Wold. The waste comes from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and California.

The company has had numerous meetings and training sessions for its 50 employees related to the potential handling of Ebola waste, which could include such things as patient clothes and protective outfits worn by medical workers.

“If the waste is properly packaged, properly shipped, there is absolutely no risk to our employees beyond what we deal with on a daily basis,” Wold said.

Any Ebola waste shipped to incinerators would have to follow “rigorous” federal packing, shipping and tracking guidelines, said Steve Tillotson, assistant director of the state Health Department’s waste management division.

“It is above and beyond,” he said of the rules.

If the Fargo facility handled any Ebola waste, a state Health Department official would be on site to monitor, Tillotson said.

“We’d want to make sure they’re following their permit to the letter, and probably encourage the incinerator owner to take a few additional precautions, as well,” he said.

Ash material generated by the burning of Ebola-related waste would go to landfills in Fargo and Gwinner. Both landfills and the Health Department have approved any such disposal. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says incinerated Ebola waste poses no danger.

“We’re taking this very seriously. At the end of the day, we do have a facility that may be a benefit to the public health, and if something is needed, certainly we’ll be available,” Wold said. “We’re not looking at this as a business opportunity.”