Finding compromise: Veterinary practice negotiates settlement with state's environmental agency over medical-waste disposal

Practice negotiates settlement with state's environmental agency over medical-waste disposal
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Dec 01, 2011

PAYSON, ARIZ. — Since he opened Star Valley Veterinary Clinic in 1985, Dr. Alan Hallman has been disposing of used needles and syringes the same way—sealed in a plastic bin and shipped off to a landfill.

But he missed a change in regulations in 2001 that outlawed this disposal method. In 2009, environmental inspectors contacted him to let him know these violations could cost him $96,000.

"For a lot of years, that was legal, and the law changed and required there would be different ways of disposing things, and I was never aware of that," Hallman says.

While Hallman is not sure why the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) picked his practice to target, he knows the practice was never inspected by ADEQ during his 26-year tenure.

Since that initial contact with environmental inspectors, two inspections resulted by the Arizona Veterinary Medical Examining Board finding Hallman's practice in full compliance.

Hallman says he has no problem coming into compliance but would have preferred if the state notified practice owners about regulation changes that could result in such high fines.

"We were wrong. We'll take our medicine, and we'll move on. It's just discouraging the way they approach the whole deal with no notification of changes in the law, no ability to defend yourself," Hallman says, adding the possibilities for violations that practice owners would never realize are endless. "I don't think there's any business in this town that can withstand an ADEQ inspection."

After being notified of his violation, Hallman was summoned to ADEQ headquarters. Department officials informed him that he would be fined $96,000—the equivalent of what ADEQ estimated the biohazardous waste collection would have cost him over the last decade.

"They wanted me to pay a settlement of $96,000, which I felt was very excessive," says Hallman.

So, Hallman proposed an alternate settlement.

He would pay $5,000 in fines over two years and donate $65,000 in services to the local humane society, which he has worked with for some time. The settlement still has to be approved by a judge, but Hallman says ADEQ has already sent out press releases praising the creative settlement it negotiated.

"In these times, as you know, our economy in Arizona here is just in the dumps," Hallman says. "I think they wanted to make an example. Ignorance isn't an excuse, but it's frustrating."

But violations of unknown regulation changes are just another challenge veterinary owners have to face these days, Hallman says.

"It's just one of the increasing amounts of government interference that any small business has," Hallman says, adding he can understand why so many new DVMs don't want to own their own practices and more existing owners are going corporate.

"I started this practice two days after I graduated from Kansas State. But the last couple years, I feel like I'm not even working for myself, I'm working for the government."

Still, Hallman, whose practice was named the top veterinary healthcare team in the state last year, says he still feels lucky to be a veterinarian, despite the challenges he faces as a practice owner.

Moving forward, Hallman did contract a biohazardous waste company for monthly pick-ups.