Choose Your Poison: U.S. To Import Toxic PCBs

PCBs will be coming home to roost. That's the message from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which last year began changing the regulations governing the importation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), extremely toxic industrial chemicals once used as lubricants and as insulators in electric transformers. Because of their long-established toxicity and carcinogenic properties, PCBs have not been commercially produced in the U.S. for many years, and since 1980 the importation of PCBs -- even for purposes of hazardous waste disposal -- has been banned by the EPA. The ban, in theory, has already ended; last November 22, the EPA permitted the importation of PCBs from Canada for destruction at the S.D. Myers Corporation incinerator near Akron, Ohio. But the Canadian government -- acting partly in response to pressure from the Canadian hazardous waste industry -- closed its border to the transfer of PCBs, creating at least a temporary stalemate.In the meantime, however, an EPA task force has been busy, and acting under a policy it calls "enforcement discretion," is re-writing the regulations governing the importation of PCBs not only from Canada, but from Mexico, Panama, Guam, and perhaps elsewhere. If, as the EPA expects, the new rules are allowed to take effect, sometime this spring the U.S. will become the destination of many thousands of tons of PCB-contaminated waste and hazardous waste incinerators will receive a considerable boost in the amount of high-risk materials available for burning.It's a development hardly welcomed by the people who live in the neighborhoods near the incinerators. "The people who live in these communities do not want these materials burned there," says Ellen Connett, co-editor of Waste Not, an environmentalist newsletter published in New York which monitors the incineration issues. On the surface, the change in EPA policy seems virtually lunatic -- why should the U.S. volunteer to run the risk of importing additional toxic chemicals, solely for the purpose of destruction? "Why should we be the dumping ground for the world?" asked LaNell Anderson, a Channelview, Tex., resident who says her East Harris County town has been blighted by the nearby Deer Park incinerator owned by Rollins Environmental Services, the largest U.S. hazardous waste firm. But like most environmental problems, the PCB situation is much more complicated than it first appears, and public health (here or abroad) is not necessarily the primary consideration of the people in charge of solving the problem.According to Tony Baney, head of the Washington-based EPA study group re-writing the PCB import regulations, the new policy is being driven by economics: the economics of international competition, and the economics of waste disposal itself. When the ban on importation was first imposed, Baney said, it had two purposes: to reduce additional PCB exposure risk in the U.S., and to allow foreign countries -- which previously had no means of disposing of PCBs -- to develop their own disposal industries. Those technologies, he said, are now in place (at least in Canada), and moreover, recent international agreements mandate the new EPA policy. "The effect is to put the U.S. regulations more in line with the standards of the 1992 Basel Convention for the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, and Their Disposal." Trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT also call for the freer international movement of hazardous waste, ostensibly for the purpose of more efficient (and cheaper) disposal. Baney added that more stringent controls often backfire because they are too expensive: "If it costs too much to manage waste, people don't manage it properly."Baney's comments were echoed by Miguel Munoz, who administers the Mexican government's program for the export and disposal of PCBs. He says that while there are two companies in Mexico capable of dealing with low-level, oil-contaminated PCBs, there is no local method for addressing highly contaminated wastes, and that currently they must be shipped for incineration to one of four European locations. "That is both much more dangerous and much more expensive," said Munoz, "than the faster and cheaper shipment to the U.S." He added that the Mexican government estimates that there are 8,000 liquid tons of PCBs in various Mexican locations awaiting disposal between now and the year 2000, including 400 tons ready to go immediately. "If we cannot get approval to ship it to the U.S.," said Muoz, "it will have to go to inland, the U.K., France, or the Netherlands, for incineration there."Although most ordinary citizens might hesitate to invite toxic waste into their backyards, the owners of American hazardous waste companies are not so reluctant. They face increasing competition here and abroad, as well as diminishing quantities of readily accessible toxic waste, and they are eager to get their hands on new, and lucrative, sources -- according to one estimate, Ohio's S.D. Myers expects to earn $100 million a year from Canadian imports alone. CounterPunch magazine reported in January that the corporation, after five years of its own failure at EPA, persuaded the Ohio congressional delegation (led by Sen. John Glenn and Congressman Tom Sawyer) to pressure Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and EPA director Carol Browner to allow the imports. "They said it was 'a jobs issue,'" said Ken Farber, speaking of Glenn and Sawyer. Farber is an American attorney who represents a Canadian waste firm, Chem Security. He said the congressmen argued that if the border were opened, there would be more job opportunities for American workers. "But this is not a jobs issue," responded Farber, "it's a public safety issue." Farber believes that the EPA violated its own rules by acting on self-assumed "enforcement discretion," overturning its long-standing policy of avoiding "unreasonable risks" as long as there are "reasonable alternatives." Farber is defending his own client's economic interests, but he insists that increased transport of PCBs means increased risk both to Canadians and Americans. Moreover, he described Canadian standards for PCB disposal and monitoring as more stringent than U.S. standards -- resulting in increased costs that give U.S. companies an unfair advantage. EPA's Baney doesn't agree, saying "Canadian standards may be different, but they're not necessarily more stringent." Baney did acknowledge that Canadian disposal costs are roughly four times those in the U.S. But he added that it may sometimes be more economical for some Canadian companies to trans-ship waste to U.S. sites that are in fact closer to them, even across the border.To those Americans who would insist that whatever the cost, foreign countries should dispose of their own toxic wastes -- that, too, is an oversimplification. PCBs are a uniquely American problem -- a single U.S. company, Monsanto, was responsible for virtually all of the commercial production of PCBs in the world. Neither Canada nor Mexico, for example, ever produced any PCBs at all. And many of the "foreign" companies now trying to dispose of PCB-contaminated waste are in fact subsidiaries of U.S.-based companies. Domingo Gonzalez, a Brownsville, Tex., environmental activist, referred to the pending process as the "re-importation" of toxic wastes, and added ruefully, "I hate to say this, but re-importation [to the U.S.] at least might mean better regulation, and better control of the problem."But that, too, may be one more technological illusion ready for shattering. "Poor old Mexico," said Ellen Connett. "They can't deal with this material, and in the U.S., we can't deal with it either." Despite the persistent, collective reassurances of U.S. industry and regulatory agencies, a growing number of environmental experts are insisting that the prevailing methods of waste disposal -- especially incineration -- are worse than useless. Paul Connett, professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University, and an internationally recognized authority on PCBs and dioxins, says that the burning of PCB-contaminated wastes is completely counterproductive. "Until we have a better method of dealing with them, contained and controlled PCBs cause relatively little damage.On the other hand, adequate incineration requires absolutely perfect circumstances, which never occur -- what happens instead, is that the actual practice of burning inevitably puts PCBs (and their byproducts, which are even more poisonous) into the air and into the food chain." Moreover, he noted, the enforcement authorities' assertions of strict controls are essentially meaningless, because "There is currently no instrumentation available to monitor dioxins [from incineration] on a continuous basis."Connett's argument was echoed by Pat Costner, staff scientist for Greenpeace International and an expert on incineration, who described the importation-for-incineration policy as simply "a bad idea. I can say unequivocally that it will increase the release of PCBs, dioxins and furans into the environment, that it will increase exposure of the population around hazardous waste facilities, and that it will increase the intake of the entire U.S. population of dioxins and dioxin-like chemicals." Costner added that it is important to remember that, on average, the "body burden of dioxins in the U.S. population is already at a level known to cause negative health effects," and the new policy will increase the risk for everyone. She said that one Canadian facility alone, although described as "state-of- the-art," in one year acknowledged the escape of thirty-two kilograms of dioxin-laced pollution into the environment. "These are, toxicologically speaking, very large amounts." She pointed out that there is now a growing list of alternative technologies available for disposing of PCBs, but that the industry is wedded to incineration, a judgment confirmed by Connett: "The industry mindset is that incineration gets rid of something once and for all. But it does not. It's absolutely mythological."Even the best of U.S. incinerators are generally older and less reliable than their foreign counterparts. Both Connett and Costner cited the example of the ENSCO incineration facility, located in El Dorado, Ark., as the clearest example of the failure of hazardous waste incineration. According to Connett, when ENSCO was initially subject to EPA-approved "test burns," it exceeded the announced standard of "six nines" of PCB destruction (that is, 99.9999 percent of PCBs destroyed). But in actual practice over the years, ENSCO's El Dorado neighbors described black smoke, foul odors, and fires originating at the plant, and an eventual epidemic of pollution-related illnesses in the small southern Arkansas town. ENSCO has been in operation since 1974, and it burned PCBs for about 10 of those years, through the early '90s. "Since 1988, in a town of 23,000 people, I've counted 63 brain tumors," said Mardell Smith, a local activist who lives approximately two air miles from the plant. "There were three brain tumors in the last month alone, in my neighborhood. And there are numerous other supposedly rare diseases -- Lou Gehrig's disease, Guillan-Barr syndrome, Bell's Palsy, and various neurological disorders." Smith said that ENSCO -- which was recently sued by the Arkansas attorney general for burning plutonium-contaminated waste from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge facility -- has been downsizing recently for lack of waste to burn. She fears that the new PCB policy will be seen as an economic godsend to hazardous waste companies -- and a public health curse to their neighbors.Unfortunately, Smith's story follows a pattern commonly established in the hazardous waste industry and its regulation: self-confident assurances of safety based on theoretical, laboratory technology, coupled with a dismal to disastrous record in actual practice. The pattern apparently holds true in Mexico as in the United States. Miguel Munoz describes his country's PCB wastes as thoroughly inventoried, contained, and controlled; Domingo Gonzalez describes a "terrible problem" of illegal spillage and burning along the border and elsewhere. And in the U.S. EPA's Region VI office, located in Dallas, spokeswoman Lou Roberts cheerfully described the new PCB policy as creating "no risk for health or for the environment." In that spirit, Rollins Environmental Services says that although the new policy may not take effect as quickly as EPA expects (roughly the end of March), the company is "getting prepared aggressively" to take advantage of the new product, whenever it becomes available.Marketing director Jack Hornberger said there is now "ample U.S. capacity" for the incineration of imported PCBs, "the maturing phase of the product line." He expects that for various bureaucratic and political reasons, Canadian PCBs would reach the American market first, at a Toxic Substance Controls Act (TSCA) pricing of 50 cents a pound for incineration, and he estimated that for Rollins, overall imports might account for an increase of "10 percent in annual throughput."Hornberger spoke from Rollins' corporate headquarters, located in Wilmington, Del. Meanwhile, in Channelview, Tex., 1.3 miles downwind from Rollins' Deer Park incineration facility, LaNell Anderson described an extreme pollution crisis, of which Rollins is only a part: "there were 750 million pounds of emissions in East Harris County last year." Anderson says any new hazardous waste emissions are added to an already overwhelming chemical soup, and yet "there is no cumulative air monitoring. All the new estimates of health risks operate on an assumption of clean background air." Anderson says her neighbors have numerous unexplained health problems, that she and her two sisters exhibit three distinct forms of auto-immune illness, and that the Texas Department of Health has found that the incidence of lung cancer in the area is 100 percent higher than the national average.She said the Deer Park facility was also recently found to be burning, supposedly unaware, radioactive wastes, and that in public meetings the company mainly seems concerned to convince citizens that "it's better than the cement kilns." After long experience battling the hazardous waste industry (as well as their tax-abating supporters in public office), Anderson says bluntly that company spokesmen are "less than honest." She credits the industry and their petrochemical allies with producing "dead cities" in Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Texas City-an area known as the "Cancer Belt," where the risk of cancer has for many years been far higher than the state average. If they are unopposed, she says, "they will make Houston a dead city too."Righteously angry as she is, LaNell Anderson also provided an "economic" analysis of the newly-announced PCB policy, although it is less theoretical than the one favored by the EPA. She describes the decision to import PCBs, and the corporations which will both manage and benefit from the waste incineration, as "totally driven by greed. Their logic repeatedly justifies dumping carcinogens on people, in order to benefit one thing: their bottom line. And their bottom line does not equate to public health."

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