New boss at Envirocare
Entrepreneur with risk-taker reputation to run the controversial Utah business
By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune
Twenty-five years ago, Steve Creamer noticed the trains that carried coal from Utah's Carbon County to New Jersey came home empty. He also knew that East Coast landfills were charging $100 a ton to dump garbage, with prices promising to go higher.
Creamer, while a successful engineering consultant, didn't know how to run a waste facility. But he had designed landfills and knew it would cost less to fill those empty trains with garbage and haul it to Utah than leave it in New Jersey.
He joined forces with USPCI, a hazardous waste company, and started the mammoth East Carbon Development Co. landfill. The operation eventually made him a fortune and started him on the entrepreneurial path that led to the announcement this week of his purchase with a New York investment firm of Envirocare of Utah, the hazardous waste landfill in Tooele County.
On Friday, two days after the sale announcement, Creamer, a self-described "very nice guy," said Envirocare will retain its name and many of its current personnel but changes still to be announced are on the way.
Acknowledging that Envirocare owner Khosrow Semnani was at the center of years of contention, Creamer promised to run a tight ship.
The new ownership "will end an era. Khosrow built a successful business, but there was a lot of grief along the way," Creamer said in an interview Friday. "I take care of people. I'll never lie to you, no matter how good or how bad something is."
Creamer, who will be in charge of Envirocare's operations, said sale negotiations have ended. What's left is to go through state regulatory hoops and renegotiate contracts with customers.
"When we can talk freely, I'll look forward to talking about it," he said. "I think everybody will be very happy."
While his friends agree, and vouch for his courage and honesty, Envirocare critics are girding for battle with this new foe. It's not necessarily personal, but that doesn't mean they are in the mood to back down, especially if Creamer pursues so-called Class B and C radioactive waste, hotter and more dangerous than the Class A waste the Tooele County facility now accepts.
"While it may have been useful to some to point at Semnani's business dealings and his credibility as a main issue around B and C [waste], you still have the fundamental issue of whether it's in the best interest of the state of Utah," said environmental watchdog Steve Erickson. ''Even if it were assumed this could all be done without any future liability or safety concerns, you still have the fundamental question, 'Is this what we want, regardless of who's in charge?' ''
If Creamer can run Envirocare with a minimum of contention, it may be due to what he has learned not just from his successes, but also his mistakes and controversies: a failed highway through the Book Cliffs, engineering problems that contributed to the failure of a dam near St. George, a proposal to bring spent nuclear fuel to southern Utah and an experimental paving material called Syncrete that cracked and crumbled before an expensive road project even was completed, costing the state millions.
Mistakes, though, are part of the territory for entrepreneurs.
"He's creative, imaginative, and brave enough to go out and do it," said state Board of Regents Chairman Nolan Karras, a longtime friend. "There's a lot of pain that goes with that. For every Steve Creamer, there are a lot of bones lying around."
Envirocare lobbyist Spencer Stokes, who with Creamer and two others advanced the ill-fated "Plan B" to bring spent highly radioactive nuclear fuel to Utah for temporary storage before going to a federal repository, said Creamer's background as a man willing to pursue ambitious ventures attracts investors.
"This is one of those stories of one individual doing it on his own. He wasn't born into money. He's done it largely by being willing to take risks and use his own money," Stokes said. "He has a good track record with investors in being able to turn a profit."
Creamer, 53, went to work for the state Department of Transportation right after graduating from Utah State University in 1973. For the next two years the Monroe native worked for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Eventually, he and Reed Noble formed Creamer & Noble, building the engineering consulting firm by rehabbing water and sewer projects built during the Depression and serving 20 of Utah's 29 counties and 200 of its 300 cities.
He rode out citizen opposition to the East Carbon Development Co. landfill, and was either a part owner or manager of the giant economic engine until 1997, when he and partner Chip Everest started ISG Resources. The nation's largest marketer of fly ash, a cement substitute, ISG also recycled other waste products from coal-fired power plants. Creamer sold ISG in 2002, but stayed on the payroll for another year. For the past year he has been contemplating what to do next.
"I decided to jump into the fire," he said, making it sound like fun.
In between triumphs came defeats. Creamer & Noble engineered the Quail Creek earthen dam near St. George which burst Jan. 1, 1989. No one was injured, but the disaster cost the state more than $11 million.
Around that time, Creamer was enduring questions about his involvement with a proposed 83-mile highway through the Book Cliffs from the town of Ouray in Uintah County to Interstate 70 near Cisco in Grand County.
Creamer & Noble was instrumental in getting the Legislature to give counties mineral royalties collected by the federal government, which Grand County planned to draw on when they paid the firm for its road engineering. The Grand County Council eventually killed the highway proposal, but not before the fight helped destroy the very structure of the county's government.
Then came Syncrete. Creamer & Noble officials were consulting engineers to Hodson Chemical, which developed the experimental concrete overlay the state used in 1989 to resurface a 4-mile stretch of Interstate 15.
After the material started breaking into chunks and hurtling into motorists' windshields, the federal Office of Inspector General and the Utah Attorney General's Office conducted a criminal investigation into the project, which cost taxpayers nearly $3 million.
Active politically in advancing his interests, Creamer is a familiar figure at the Utah Statehouse.
State election records show he contributed more than $80,000 to candidates in the 2004 gubernatorial election, including $45,000 to Karras, $20,000 to Gov. Olene Walker and $15,000 to Gov.-elect Jon Huntsman Jr. Creamer's wife, attorney Jeannine Bennett - whom Creamer described as "a screaming Democrat" - contributed $10,000 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scott Matheson Jr.
Creamer said the donations were made before his purchase of Envirocare was on the table.
He said regulators have called Envirocare a "national resource," a notion he likes. But to watchdog and ferocious Envirocare critic Claire Geddes, it is a status Utah can do without.
"Utah's been targeted enough. There's no way we should be asked to be the sacrificial lamb for the rest of the nation," she said.
As for Creamer's promise to run a facility without problems, "that's an impossibility," she said. "It's a nice theory to say everything will be run top notch, but I don't believe it."
Creamer urged patience. "Give us a chance to tell the whole story," he said. Envirocare ''needs to be managed well, it needs to be managed without controversy, and we think we can do that."
Steve Creamer bio
Hometown: Monroe, Utah
Education: Utah State University degree in engineering in 1973
Work history: Utah Dept. of Transportation, Utah Dept. of Environmental Quality
Businesses: Creamer & Noble engineering consulting firm, East Carbon Development Co., ISG Resources, Envirocare of Utah
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