The Front

Torching the Environment

HAZARDOUS WASTE INCINERATORS, and the web of regulations intended to make them operate safely, have come under withering criticism from government scientists, private researchers and the Wall Street Journal during the last several months. Officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and private research scientists now admit that hazardous waste incinerators emit hundreds of times more dioxins and other toxic air pollutants than is allowed by EPA regulations, and the Wall Street Journal revealed a record of malfunctions, including explosions and major releases of toxins, that incinerator operators have tried to cover up and that regulatory officials seem powerless to understand, much less curtail.

 Scientists employed by EPA acknowledged in March 1992 that modern hazardous waste incinerators simply cannot comply with existing federal regulations because they cannot destroy all chemicals with 99.99 percent destruction/removal efficiency (DRE), which is the level required by federal law. Federal law further requires that certain wastes of "special concern," such as dioxins, furans and PCBs, be destroyed with 99.9999 percent DRE. EPA scientists said last month that they have known since at least 1985 that hazardous waste incinerators could not meet any of these regulatory requirements.

The Jacksonville debacle

 The story broke when Pat Costner, a chemist and research director for Greenpeace, published an independent analysis of dioxin emissions from the Jacksonville, Arkansas incinerator. The Jacksonville incinerator has begun burning 16.5 million pounds of herbicides (2,4,5-T and 2,4-D) left over from the Vietnam War. These wastes are known to be contaminated with total dioxins and furans at concentrations ranging from 3 to 40 parts per million (ppm).

 Costner's analysis revealed that the Jacksonville incinerator was only achieving 99.96 percent destruction of the dioxins entering the incinerator, thus emitting 400 times more dioxin into the community than the law allows. An official with the Arkansas Department of Pollution Control and Ecology acknowledged in telephone interviews that Costner's calculations are correct. He also said the department had no intention of shutting down the incinerator despite its continuing emissions of dioxin directly into a residential community. He said the department did not know what the total dioxin emissions into the population of Jacksonville would be. But, he asserted, no matter what the total may be, it is safe.

The Jacksonville incinerator is a key demonstration project, established with the cooperation of EPA Administrator William Reilly and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton to show that dioxin-containing wastes can be incinerated in a residential neighborhood over the objections of the community. In a city-wide referendum in March 1986, the people of Jacksonville voted two-to-one (1383 to 656) to stop the project, but government officials simply ignored the vote and have overridden all objections ever since. Costner's analysis clearly showed that residents of Jacksonville are being exposed to levels of dioxin contamination that exceed federal health and safety standards by a wide margin. This is the first systematic dioxin experiment on humans using a residential population. Previous dioxin exposures of humans have occurred during industrial accidents and in the industrial manufacture of chemical-biological warfare agents. Dioxin is now known to cause cancer in humans and to disrupt normal growth and development of fetuses and infants at low levels of exposure.

 About 100 waste sites in the United States contain substantial quantities of dioxin, and the United States has stockpiles containing billions of pounds of chemical-biological warfare agents which the federal government wants to incinerate. If the Jacksonville dioxin experiment can be maintained despite ethical and public health objections, government agencies will be able to claim they have a green light to incinerate just about anything just about anywhere.

 The Jacksonville experiment has brought to light information that could derail the entire U.S. incineration program, however. In preparing her analysis of dioxin exposure of the Jacksonville populace, Costner uncovered a government study showing that tests conducted in 1984 and 1985 by private researchers under contract to EPA revealed that hazardous waste incinerators cannot be expected to achieve 99.9999 percent destruction of wastes that occur in concentrations lower than 10,000 parts per million, and cannot be expected to achieve 99.99 percent destruction of wastes that occur in concentrations lower than 1000 ppm. EPA published the 1985 data in 1989.

 When this information came to light, a news reporter from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sandy Davis, interviewed Bob Hall, chief of the EPA's Combustion Research Branch in Research Triangle, North Carolina, and he confirmed what the EPA report had shown. "The fact is that you run into problems with your DRE when a low concentration of wastes is fed into the incinerator," Hall said. "Our data clearly shows that." Davis asked Hall why EPA hasn't changed its regulations since it knows that existing incinerators cannot comply with the regulations. Hall said, "I don't know why that hasn't been changed. It's a regulatory issue. I'm in research."

 Costner uncovered a second EPA report, published in 1984 but never widely circulated, showing that, among eight major hazardous waste incinerators studied, none could achieve 99.99 percent DRE. Sandy Davis interviewed the author of that report, Drew Trenholm of the Midwest Research Institute in Research Triangle, North Carolina, who said that incinerators simply cannot achieve the DRE required by federal law. "The trend is very strong in the data that this is the case," Trenholm told Davis.

 At public hearings over the past decade, dozens of EPA officials have stated for the record that incinerators can achieve the legally required DREs in what appears to be a coverup of public health information of astonishing proportions.

Many of the most dangerous toxins, such as dioxins, furans and PCBs, occur in wastes at low concentrations. If low-concentration chemicals cannot be destroyed effectively, then all sludge incinerators, contaminated-soil burners and wood-treatment- waste incinerators will fail to meet federal regulations and will emit illegal quantities of potent toxins into surrounding air.

The Chem Waste nightmare

 The human management failures of incineration technology are no less remarkable than the failures of the technology itself.

 Chemical Waste Management is the nation's largest and wealthiest operator of hazardous waste incinerators. Joan Bernstein, vice-president for environmental policy and ethical standards at Chem Waste, says, "Environmental compliance is what drives this company." Some of the company's parent firm's top executives donate time to sit on the boards of directors of prominent environmental organizations like the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation. If any entity were capable of running an incinerator well, it would seem to be this company.

 Yet during recent years Chem Waste's two incinerators have racked up a list of leaks, spills, releases, explosions, violations and coverups that would fill a hefty book.

 According to Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Bailey's review of Illinois state EPA inspection and other records and Journal interviews with state and company officials, among Chemical Waste Management's numerous violations of standard operating procedure are the following:

Government ineptitude

 Government regulation has done little to curb industry abuses. The Wall Street Journal's Bailey pointed out on March 20 that federal, state and local regulatory officials pay close attention to hazardous waste incinerators, but they can't be everywhere at the same time, and they often learn about accidents, explosions and violations from tips phoned to them anonomously by insiders. There are many other regulatory problems, as well.

The person responsible for developing EPA's hazardous waste incinerator regulations in 1978 was William Sanjour. In a recent letter to a grassroots activist, Sanjour offered several reasons why the regulations, as finally written, don't work:

 "I've talked to many people who live near hazardous waste sites and I have reviewed many records, and this is the way it really works," Sanjour wrote. "Inspectors typically work from nine to five, Monday through Friday. So if the incinerator has anything particularly nasty to burn, it will do so at night or on weekends. When the complaints come in to the inspector's office the next day, he will call the incinerator operator and ask what's going on. He may also visit the plant, but he rarely finds anything. The enforcement officials tend to view the incinerator operator as their client and the public as a nuisance."

 "Keep in mind that hazardous waste is a factory's garbage. If they typically ship out, say, 1,000 gallons a month of waste solvents and they find themselves with, say, 50 gallons of waste PCB which they don't know what to do with, what is more natural than dumping it in with the waste solvent to be hauled away to the incinerator? No one would be the wiser," Sanjour wrote.

He offered other reasons why the regulations are insufficient:

 Recent events at the Jacksonville, Arkansas incinerator appear to follow a script that might have been written by Sanjour.

 The Jacksonville site manager, Robert Apa, issued respirator masks to all employees and sent an inter-office memo April 1 ordering everyone to keep their masks handy because of dangerous "puffs" of pollution being emitted from the furnace. Seals in the fire box are leaking, and periodically, for reasons that are not understood, pressure builds up inside the furnace, forcing "puffs" of contaminants to escape. The puffs last from 5 to 45 seconds and represent emissions that entirely bypass the pollution control system.

When the media obtained an internal company memorandum discussing the puffs, Mark McCorkle, an Arkansas state official assigned to regulate the Jacksonville incinerator, first tried to pressure the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (the state's largest paper) not to print anything about it. McCorkle then conceded that the pollution puffs posed a potential hazard to workers, but denied that the public would be affected when the puffs drifted off-site to the homes that lie a long stone's-throw from the furnace. "If you were to take this memo out of context, it would appear to be a horror story," McCorkle said.

 Apa stressed the difficulty of preventing the puffs. "We have taken measures via the procedural changes and a new interlock, to minimize the duration" of the puffs, he said. "However, as soon as one problem is identified, another seems to appear."

 Jacksonville citizens continue to work desperately to shut down the incinerator. A new group, Jacksonville Mothers and Children Defense Fund (JAMAC), will soon file a lawsuit seeking a shutdown. They are asking groups across the United States to sign on to their suit.

 After a decade of experimentation and experience, the record now indicates that hazardous waste incinerators cannot be operated safely, even when the operator desires to do so. If the operators have any inclination to cut corners, regulatory officials seem unwilling or unable to bring them to justice, intensifying the risks to the public even further.

- Peter Montague
Rachel's Hazardous Waste News