After death, Cape Elizabeth accelerates study of Recycling Center safety

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Safety at the Recycling Center is being assessed after the Nov. 24 accident that killed retired Public Works Director Herbert Dennison.

Town Manager Mike McGovern announced Dec. 1 that the town would have Woodard and Curran, a solid waste and recycling engineering firm, assess the safety of the facility.

McGovern said representatives from the firm would be at the center this week, although he declined to disclose when they would be there, to avoid disrupting the center’s normal operation. He said a report would be made available after the visit.

According to the Maine Department of Labor, the Recycling Center hasn’t been inspected since 2005.

At a Sept. 8 Town Council meeting to discuss a 10-year capital improvement plan, McGovern stressed the importance of improving safety at the center.

“Traffic over there’s a mess,” McGovern told councilors. “It used to be, people would go in, they’d back in. Now everyone is all over the place. They’re backing in, they’re going in the front too, they’re walking across the parking lot. Someone’s going to get killed there.”

McGovern’s warning was realized 2 1/2 months later when Dennison, 79, was killed after being struck by a Ford Explorer and being knocked into the trash compacter. The vehicle was being driven by 72-year-old Christine Sharp-Lopez of Hunts Point Road.

The trash hopper is in the bottom of a two-story shed built on the side of a plateau at the Recycling Center. Vehicles approach from above, where there is room for three cars or pick-up trucks to back in and drop trash down into the hopper.

Director of Public Works Bob Malley on Nov. 25 said one car was already pulled up to the hopper when Sharp-Lopez approached. Police Chief Neil Williams said Dennison was walking up to the hopper, rather than driving up to it, because his vehicle was towing a trailer.

McGovern on Dec. 1 said he wants Woodard and Curran to recommend “short-term measures” to improve safety and that he also wants to hire the firm for a longer study.

“I also anticipate contracting with them for the longer-range study that was recommended to be done next fiscal year,” McGovern said in an email to councilors. “I will ask that work begin right away on the larger study instead of waiting to July when the study had been planned.”

The 10-year capital improvement plan approved by the Town Council in September included plans to upgrade the Recycling Center. The study McGovern referred to in his email is outlined in the plan as a $25,000 study to be done during fiscal year 2016. 

The plan for fiscal year 2017 says $300,000 will be used to modernize the Recycling Center.

The Recycling Center was built in 1978. According to Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, it is inspected randomly or after a complaint has been filed, not on a regular basis.

The Recycling Center was last inspected in July 2005. Rabinowitz said there will be no investigation of the recent accident because Dennison was not employed by the town.

“The accident was not under our jurisdiction because it was not a work-related incident,” Rabinowitz said. “(Dennison) was there under a civilian capacity.”

She said this accident must be handled by law enforcement. Williams on Nov. 25 said the Police Department will turn the case over to the Cumberland County district attorney to determine if there will be charges against Sharp-Lopez.

The chief said the vehicle she drove is being examined to determine if there was a mechanical failure. He said the accelerator of the vehicle was down, but that it still needs to be determined if this was the fault of the car or the driver.

In the inspection report from 2005, the department’s Bureau of Labor Standards found the Recycling Center’s workplace conditions were in violation of “Occupational Safety and Health” rules. More than a dozen violations were found.

None of the violations involved the trash hopper. Violations included loose air cylinders, exposed wiring, blocked emergency exits, and inadequate staff training, among other things.

Malley said Nov. 25 that he believes Dennison’s death was the first to occur at the Recycling Center. Some residents using the center this week said they believe it was a rare accident and that the facility is generally safe.

“I think it’s safe enough if people are careful,” Joel Shroeder said. “The fence is high. I don’t think anything needs to change.”

Others agreed that change needs to occur regarding how people behave at the facility, not with the facility itself.

“I think it’s a pretty good system,” Penny Pollard said. “I do see people back in there pretty fast, and that calls for attention.”

Others said it was “a freak accident” and that people need to slow down and be more cautious. Some said the Nov. 24 incident was purely “driver error.”

Some residents said if people followed the directions and drove in, rather than walked in, there wouldn’t be a problem.

“The people who walk in there don’t belong (at the Recycling Center),” Susan Garrity said.

Others said they find it more convenient to walk in. Jim Romano said he often sees older people walking in because they don’t like driving in reverse. He said drivers preparing to back in need to take more time to check that no one has walked in behind them.

“People don’t see them and I think that’s an impatience factor,” Romano said.

Regardless of Woodard and Curran’s findings, some residents said the facility will be hard to change.

“With the current situation,” Robert Maxwell said, “I don’t know what else they could do.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Sidebar Elements

Cape Elizabeth residents are supposed to back their vehicles into the Recycling Center building to deposit trash. But many opt not to park outside and walk in, which can create a safety hazard.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.