Audit finds problems with handling, storing of hazardous materials by Orange County Utilities
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Audit finds problems with handling, storing of hazardous materials by Orange County Utilities

Dec 14, 2023

A comptroller’s audit, released Wednesday morning, found Orange County Utilities carelessly mishandled hazardous materials in its workplaces, posing potentially unsafe conditions for employees.

“They had [hazardous] materials in containers with no labels or with labels that were illegible, a problem because if stuff starts leaking out you don’t know what it is,” Comptroller Phil Diamond said, listing instances of careless handling of flammable, dangerous materials. “This could be very serious.”

The audit was conducted in 2020 but 13 site inspections were performed in August 2021.

“I think it’s important that Utilities management went with us on our inspections because they got to see what we were inspecting,” said Wendy Kittleson, assistant comptroller. “I think it’s safe to say they were disturbed at what they saw and were thankful for recommendations to get these things fixed.”

Most problems have been addressed since the department received the report.

With more than 1,000 employees, Orange County Utilities provides drinking water to 162,000 customers, a distribution which encompasses a service population estimated at 845,000 people.

It also manages residential, curbside collection of household garbage for 230,000 households.

It oversees the largest publicly owned landfill in Florida.

The 38-page report published on the comptroller’s audit page includes photographs illustrating problems that examiners and a third-party consultant found during visits to the department’s water lab, three regional wastewater treatment plants, the landfill in east Orange County and other sites.

Diamond said proper storage, handling, management and disposal of hazardous and regulated materials is a critical part of providing a safe environment for county employees, contractors and the public.

Utilities administrators mostly concurred with recommendations for improvements.

“A different point of view is helpful. A different perspective for your operations is helpful,” said Debbie Sponsler, Utilities spokesperson. “We appreciate them pointing out opportunities for us to do better.”

In a letter published as part of the audit report, Utilities Director Ed Torres described the comptroller’s review as a chance to “strengthen our operations and improve as a premiere utility.”

Diamond said the objective of the audit was to examine whether hazardous materials were handled, stored and disposed of according to department policies and state and federal regulations.

He called it a “public-safety audit.”

All Utilities divisions use hazardous materials including fuel, paint and cleaning supplies for day-to-day operations. The audit noted that the Utilities water lab maintains chemicals for lab tests that include toxic and corrosive substances, carcinogens, flammable liquids, and compressed gases.

Diamond said auditors found some potentially dangerous conditions, including flammable materials stored outside fire safety cabinets. The cabinets are intended to prevent a fire from spreading quickly.

Auditors also found combustible materials stored on top of fire safety cabinets at some sites.

The audit pointed out that a fire-safety survey of the landfill’s waste-tire center, where junk tires are collected, has never been conducted, though a review is required by Florida Department of Environmental Protection regulations.

At two facilities, combustible gases were stored within 20 feet of one another.

They should be separated when not in use, Diamond said.

The cylinders were separated by Utilities staff during the inspection.

Diamond said auditors will conduct a follow-up in the future.

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