A Louisiana judge on Monday blocked a Texas company from sending incinerated material from an Ebola victim’s Dallas apartment to Louisiana even though health officials say the burned medical waste poses no risk and a Lake Charles disposal company that was to bury it in a landfill there decided not to.
State Judge Robert Downing, who is sitting in for state District Judge Kay Bates at the 19th Judicial District Court, on Monday signed the temporary restraining order, which in part asks for more information about the safety of the waste. Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell announced Sunday the intention to file the temporary restraining order after news that waste from a Dallas Ebola case had been incinerated in Texas and was to be put in a Louisiana landfill.
Although the landfill’s owner, Chemical Waste Management Inc., announced Monday that it would not accept at its Lake Charles facility the incinerated waste from Veolia Environmental in Port Arthur, Texas, Caldwell continued with the request for the court order to make it legally binding. A hearing on the temporary restraining order will be held Oct. 22.
“While the CWM-LC facility is permitted by the state and federal government to accept waste of this type, and while accepting this waste poses no threat to the environment or human health, we do not want to make an already complicated situation more complicated,” Waste Management said in a release.
Mitch Osborne, general manager with Veolia’s Gulf Coast, said he talked with Waste Management on Friday and had already agreed to hold the boxes of incinerated material until the company could check on any needed permits. With the temporary restraining order in place, Osborne said the relatively small amount of incinerated material will just be kept on-site and won’t affect operations at the facility in Texas.
“We’ll hold that indefinitely until we come up with a plan B,” Osborne said.
Veolia and Waste Management have a longstanding business relationship and are large customers for each other, he said.
The temporary restraining order requires Veolia to stop any plans to ship the incinerated material to Louisiana. In addition, it demands that the company provide the state with information about the treatment of the waste, transportation plans and any facilities in Texas that could accept the waste instead.
The temporary restraining order request says the material was going to be sent to the Louisiana landfill because of an existing contract between Veolia and the landfill.
Although the landfill had gotten a “characteristic of ash” report, the landfill had no “direct knowledge of the possible connection to the Ebola virus,” the order request says.
“There are too many unknowns at this point, and it is absurd to transport potentially hazardous Ebola waste across state lines,” Caldwell said Sunday.
“This situation is certainly unprecedented and we want to approach it with the utmost caution,” he said. “We just can’t afford to take any risks when it comes to this deadly virus.”
However, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden said during a news conference Monday that incinerated Ebola waste poses no danger to the environment or public health.
“We certainly know how to deactivate and destroy the virus,” Frieden said. “It is easily destroyed by incineration. It’s not a hearty virus.”
Dr. Frank Welch, medical director for community preparedness for Louisiana’s Office of Public Health, responded even more succinctly when asked what risk the ash posed.
“None,” he said. “These incinerators burn incredibly hot.”
“The real risk is for close caretakers for dying patients,” Welch said. Unlike the flu, Ebola isn’t contagious until a person starts showing symptoms of the disease.
“That’s when they’re infectious,” he said. “The average person in Louisiana has virtually no risk at all of getting Ebola.”
Energy needs to be focused on where there is risk, which is with health care workers, Welch said. Although there has been increased awareness, information sharing and training over the past six weeks in Louisiana for health care workers, that effort only intensified Friday with the news of a health care worker becoming ill in Dallas.
“We have certainly learned from that,” Welch said.
Frieden said it was still unknown how the health care worker became infected, and until that is known, extensive precautions will be investigated for use by care workers.
In Louisiana, Welch said, the medical network from EMS and police to emergency room workers has been bombarded with information and guidance on how to detect potential cases so that patients can be isolated and treated.
Isolation, Welch explained, isn’t something out of the movies complete with plastic tents and ventilators. It really just means having a private room with a bathroom, and any health care facility in Louisiana has that much.
“You can’t get Ebola from someone over there sitting in their own room,” Welch said.
Reports have been coming in, and although none of them have proven to be a positive case of Ebola, Welch said it shows that people are being cautious.
“The system is working exactly how we want it to,” he said. “We would much rather have a scare than miss a true case.”
Caldwell’s filing of a restraining order request on Monday was in response to news that six truckloads of potentially Ebola-contaminated material collected from the apartment where a Dallas Ebola victim was staying was incinerated in Port Arthur, Texas, on Friday before heading to a hazardous waste landfill in Louisiana.
On Sept. 30, the CDC announced the first confirmed case of Ebola in the United States in someone who had just traveled to Dallas from West Africa. The man died on Oct. 8. Two days later, a health care worker at the Texas Presbyterian Hospital who cared for the man started getting symptoms of Ebola and was put in isolation. Preliminary tests late Saturday confirmed the health care worker had contracted Ebola.
Frieden also responded to questions about why travel restrictions to and from West Africa are not seen as an effective way to stop the virus from getting to the United States.
“The bottom line here is reducing risk to Americans,” Frieden said. The way to do that, he said, is to stop it at its source in Africa where CDC workers and many others are trying to bring that outbreak under control.
Travel restrictions would only make it harder to get that work in Africa done, and it would hurt the African countries economically and could bring instability to the countries, which would not help with the fight against the disease, he said.
“That would increase, not decrease, the risk to Americans,” Frieden said.
As far as the ashes of the Ebola victim’s apartment contents, it’s unclear where those finally will be headed.
“We contracted with Veolia to dispose of the waste from the apartment. It was incinerated at Veolia’s facility in Port Arthur. Further disposition would be done by Veolia,” said Chris Van Deusen, press officer with the Texas Department of State Health Services. “Incineration kills the virus, leaving the ashes completely decontaminated.”
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.