Blandford, Mass. — When Dr. Hazel Holman showed a state environmental regulator into her rural Massachusetts practice last year, she noted the inspector's easygoing manner as he ran down a compliance checklist.
DEP Section Chief Saadi Mota-medi, whose signature appears on many of the 26 inspection-related cases obtained by DVM Newsmagazine via a Freedom of Information Act request, refused to comment about his office's latest target, the veterinary medical sector. Such crackdowns aren't unique to Massachusetts, with governmental officials and environmentalists becoming increasingly wary of health hazards tied to medical waste, citing reports of antibiotics, mercury and infectious agents leaching into national water supplies. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency governs many medical waste streams, state regulators generally cover infectious materials disposed of by small businesses, including veterinary medical practices.Inspections often are considered invaluable for ensuring regulatory compliance, yet detractors argue that the DEP officials made no effort to alert Massachusetts veterinarians before embarking on its four-county probe of practices. The DEP's interpretation of state environmental laws is overbroad and far too restrictive, critics contend. Specific rules do not exist for veterinary medicine, although a related DEP fact sheet was issued after the start of inspections.
DEP spokeswoman Eva Tor explains that the state's hazardous-waste laws have been in place "for a long time" and such strict interpretations are not anticipated. As for penalties, they're calculated in state regulations, with a $25,000 statutory maximum for first-class violations that include the discharge of hazardous materials into the environment.
The DEP's settlement assessment system, while complicated, is negotiable, she adds.
"The majority of the clinics did not have serious problems, and our fines aren't finalized," Tor says. "We prefer to negotiate settlement agreements and a return to compliance with those parties that are cited in enforcement conferences."
There's a lot of flexibility in those meetings, insiders agree. But gray areas of the state's medical waste laws concern Susan Weinstein, a lawyer and executive director of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association. She plans to meet with DEP officials for clarification.
"You can rinse off a vial and have some powder on your hands, and state regulations say that water should be piped separately to a holding tank. No one has a good answer for getting rid of medications," she says. "The bottom line is that regulations can't be such that they put responsible veterinary practices out of business. The number of things that need to be different is growing. There has to be a reasonable means of compliance, and it needs to be outlined in the law. We're getting questions almost daily on this."