Cintas workers win environmental cleanup

BRANFORD, Conn. — In a groundbreaking agreement, the Cintas Corp. has signed a pact with the state of Connecticut to stop using detergents which contain ingredients known as APEs (alkyphenol ethoxylates). APEs are toxic to fish and are potentially linked to cancer.

Environmental activist Kiki Kennedy, a Branford resident, hailed the agreement during an Aug. 11 hearing conducted by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “This is the first time any government regulatory body has taken a stand on APEs, which are fish endocrine destructors,” she said.

Kennedy thanked the workers at Cintas for signing a petition that brought public attention to the problem. The workers who had complained about the effects of the chemicals on their health and on the environment had been singled out for harassment and intimidation.

Unite Here intervened in the DEP administration process on the workers’ behalf, and the union’s intervention proved decisive to winning the agreement. Cintas workers in Branford and nationally have been seeking union representation with Unite Here for several years.

The state is also mandating proper training in the event of a chemical spill. There have been two spills from the Cintas plant into the Branford River.

Michael Fitts of ConnectiCosh testified that to his knowledge the workers are often not trained with Spanish interpretation and are not clearly informed of the dangers involved. Many of the workers are recent immigrants from Latin America.

Thanking the DEP for requiring training on cleanup of chemical spills, Carlos Santiago, a Unite Here member who works at AmeriPride Laundry in Hartford, explained that his union contract includes a bilingual training program on cleanup of spills. “I strongly encourage Cintas to meet with the workers to determine what is needed to train them properly,” he said.

When co-worker Renaldo Alvarado protested Cintas’ methods of intimidation, his testimony was cut off by the hearing officers.

Speaking on behalf of the Connecticut Sierra Club, John Calendrelli agreed that the phaseout of APEs should be a national model.

The settlement requires Cintas to pay a penalty of $450,000 for over 900 violations of its pollution permit. Connecticut’s mandatory action on APE chemicals is the first in this country, although their use is banned in the European Union.

joelle.fishman @ pobox.com