By Mike Rosenberg

The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — For years, environmentally conscious residents across the Pacific Northwest have dutifully dropped off their broken LCD TVs and computer screens at special e-recycling centers for proper handling and disposal. For good reason: Tubes inside the flat-screen monitors contain mercury, a chemical that can cause organ damage and mental impairment if the fragile tubes shatter.

The Northwest’s largest recycler of the screens, however, was not disposing of them safely at all — it was secretly sending them to Hong Kong, where workers, reportedly oblivious to the dangers and not wearing masks, were smashing them, releasing the toxins into the ecosystem.

All the while, the two co-founders of the recycling company — Kent, Washington-based Total Reclaim — earned about $7.8 million each from the business while telling the public the company was a “friend of the Earth,” prosecutors say.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office says Total Reclaim shipped 8.3 million pounds of mercury-containing flat-screen monitors from a storage facility on Harbor Island to Hong Kong — enough to fill 430 shipping containers — over at least seven years, starting in 2008. The company’s customers, among them the city of Seattle and the University of Washington, spanned Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

Total Reclaim co-founders Craig Lorch and Jeff Zirkle were each sentenced to two years and four months in prison by a federal judge in Seattle on Tuesday after pleading guilty last fall to a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. They also will pay $945,000 in restitution and serve three years of supervised release.

Prosecutors said it’s only the third prosecution for phony e-recycling nationally, and the largest in U.S. history by volume. (The other two, in Colorado and Illinois, involved the improper disposal of lead-containing CRT monitors.)

“This is a serious offense,” U.S. District Judge Richard Jones told Lorch and Zirkle in a standing room-only courtroom Tuesday. He noted their actions “struck a huge blow” to the public trust, “damage that can’t be recovered.”

He added: “The only reason you stopped is that you were caught.”