Recycled electronic equipment sat dormant after company pulled the plug

Amid piles of computer gear piled behind a chain-link fence in White City, there are stacks of Macs, tons of televisions and perhaps even stray bits of data on hard drives that could pique the interest of identity thieves.

The equipment, filled with lead, mercury and other hazardous materials, still has the tags of companies and organizations from all over Southern Oregon, including the U.S. government, school districts and the Rogue Valley Transportation District.

It was supposed to be recycled by American Appliance Recyclers, but the company, which promised to destroy the hard drives on computer equipment, went out of business and left the refuse behind.

"This is a problem because businesses are liable," said Lisa Freeman, toxic use and waste reduction technical assistant with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

She said a business that owns a piece of electronic equipment remains responsible for its disposal even after a recycling company takes it away.

"Businesses have cradle-to-grave liability," she said.

A new recycling company, ECS Regenesys, took the piles of computer gear and other equipment this week to its recycling center in Santa Clara, Calif.

The DEQ is considering levying a fine against American Appliance Recyclers. Freeman said the company previously had been investigated for not disposing of electronic equipment in a timely manner.

The recycling company did remove a lot of equipment since it started in 2002, she said, but much of it was sent overseas.

"Sending it to China isn't getting it right," said Freeman, referring to the lack of environmental safeguards in that country and the lack of oversight of the recycling process.

Curt Spivey, division president of electronic collections for ECS, estimates that some 300,000 pounds of electronic gear will be hauled away from a lot surrounded by a chain link fence and razor wire outside the old Pepsi plant on Avenue G, near Highway 62.

"I drove by this pile and said, 'What is that?'" said Spivey.

He said the clean-up effort is being underwritten by a company, but Spivey said the company didn't want to disclose its name.

On Oct. 20, ECS collected about 150,000 pounds of electronics from Jackson County residents during a free introductory offer. The company typically charges a fee for recycling.

Spivey said that unlike other recycling outfits that ship overseas, his company grinds up all the computers, televisions and circuit boards and extracts the raw materials so they can be recycled.

Spivey said the some recyclers sell computer gear to foreign companies, where it can fall into the wrong hands, including identity thieves who use equipment to mine hard drives searching for Social Security numbers and other private information.

Some of the computers found in White City belonged to Asante Health Systems in Medford.

Mark Hetz, chief information officer for Asante, said that before computers are sent to the recyclers by his company they are run through a software scrub program that meets the standards of the U.S. Department of Defense.

The program rewrites the hard drive seven times to make it difficult to extract the former data. Hard drives used on servers are never let go, he said, just to make sure none of the data falls into the wrong hands.

Asante is looking at more sophisticated equipment that could potentially erase any information.

He said equipment to deal with data theft has become more sophisticated, but so have the capabilities of those wanting to steal the information.

Hetz said his company has a system in place that provides levels of security from the point the data is collected to the time the memory device is obsolete.

"We have a gentleman in our IT (information technology) department that does nothing but security," he said. "It's important to us."

The process for recycling electronic gear is soon going to change in Oregon under House Bill 2626. Manufacturers will have to develop a plan to recycle equipment, adding an extra up-front cost that will likely be borne by the consumer.

Freeman said other counties in the state have developed a program to handle the collection of hazardous waste.

"Sadly, Jackson County doesn't have a permanent hazardous waste collection (program)."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.