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Glenside Resident Wins Prestigious National Medal

Release Date: 10/06/2006
Contact Information: Frankel, 215-814-2665

PHILADELPHIA - Glenside resident Martin Harrell was honored as a winner of the prestigious 2006 Service to America Medals at a formal ceremony held in Washington, D.C., September 27. Harrell, an attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, won in the Justice and Law Enforcement category. He was nominated for his work that led to the criminal prosecution of a Montgomery County businessman who illegally stored, transported and exported huge amounts of hazardous waste and other chemicals.

    The Service to America Medals is an awards program that honors the nation's top federal employees for achievement in eight categories. The program recognizes outstanding achievements in Homeland Security; Career Achievement; Call to Service; International Affairs; Justice and Law Enforcement; National Security; Science and Environment; and Citizen Services. This year’s winners were selected by a committee comprised of prominent public figures such as Stanford University President John Hennessy, Southwest Airlines Chairman Herb Kelleher, AOL Vice-Chairman Ted Leonsis, and former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson.

    A 23-year veteran of EPA, Harrell was appointed as a special assistant U.S. attorney for the U.S. attorney's office in Philadelphia to conduct the investigation and prosecute the government's case against Joseph Udell, 65, and two companies owned by Udell, Pyramid Chemical Sales Company, Ambler, Pa., and Nittany Warehouse LP, in Pottstown, Pa., west of Philadelphia.

    Udell and Pyramid Chemical purchased and sold chemicals of various kinds. By 1998 they were storing a smorgasbord of old chemicals in a dilapidated Pottstown warehouse owned by Udell’s company, Nittany Warehouse LP.

    The warehouse was jammed floor to ceiling with thousands of containers of incompatible chemicals, some stacked on top of each other, including flammable and poisonous chemicals. Many of the containers were rusted and corroded metal drums, and others were damaged, crushed or torn, posing a serious public health and environmental threat, and safety hazard for occupants of an adjacent hotel, students at the nearby Community College and local residents.

    Local and state authorities tried for two years to compel Udell to properly dispose of the hazardous substances and repair the warehouse. Udell started removing chemicals from the warehouse in the summer of 2000 after EPA declared the warehouse a Superfund site.

    Some of the chemicals were disposed of legally. However, Udell arranged to ship 29 forty-foot containers – holding roughly 300 tons of chemicals – by freighter to an alleged buyer in Nigeria via the Netherlands. Upon arrival in Rotterdam, Dutch authorities discovered that some of the containers were leaking. Unable to locate the Nigerian buyer, the Dutch government - in accordance with international law - refused to allow the cargo to proceed.

    When Udell would not retrieve the chemicals, the cargo sat at the port in Rotterdam for three years while Dutch authorities sought assistance from EPA to either dispose of the chemicals or return them to the United States. EPA civil enforcement staff took administrative actions against Udell which he ignored.

    Udell also sold thousands of pounds of unusable chemicals to unsuspecting companies across the United States at pennies on the dollar.

    In late 2005, Harrell obtained guilty pleas from Udell, Pyramid Chemical and Nittany Warehouse LP for 15 counts of illegally storing, transporting and exporting hazardous waste in the United States and overseas. On February 14, 2006, a federal judge sentenced the defendants to pay more than $2 million in restitution and fines, with much of the money going to the Dutch government and the Rotterdam port operator to reimburse them for their costs incurred after Udell refused to reclaim his hazardous cargo. Udell was also sentenced to six months house-arrest and 500 hours of community service, to be performed in Pottstown.

    The criminal investigation team included several agents from EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division as well as EPA technical and laboratory personnel. It involved interviews with more than 40 witnesses in the United States and abroad, and the review of thousands of pages of documents. The investigation and prosecution also required close coordination among American, Dutch and Nigerian agencies, including joint EPA-Dutch sampling of some chemicals in Rotterdam.

    The federal government’s response led to the removal of more than 600 fifty-five gallon drums of hazardous waste, plus other waste, from the Pottstown warehouse, and the incineration of more than 300 tons of chemicals in the Netherlands.

    Harrell was an ideal candidate to handle this multi-jurisdictional, international case, as he is one of EPA’s leading experts on criminal enforcement of environmental laws. As part of a multi-agency, international team since 2000, he has developed curricula and taught environmental law enforcement to police, prosecutors and regulators in seven emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and in South Africa. His efforts have helped multiple nations learn the fundamentals of using criminal enforcement to improve environmental regulation and compliance.

    Harrell, a native of Rocky Mount, N.C., graduated from the West Virginia University College of Law in 1982 after being employed as a newspaper reporter and spending three years in the U.S. Army in the 1970s. He joined EPA in Philadelphia in October 1983, and has focused on criminal enforcement of environmental laws since 1988. He has served as a special assistant U. S. attorney for the Department of Justice in several judicial districts in EPA’s mid-Atlantic region, and is married to an EPA employee.