Hazardous waste

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Visitors to Chicago's Shedd Aquarium were dumbfounded to see a diver plunge to the bottom of a tank with a printing plate in hand and develop it before their eyes while a moray eel wrapped itself around his waist and a shark cruised between his legs.

They were more astounded still when he clambered out, put the plate on a printing press set up for the occasion, ran off prints, and handed them out to the bystanders.

Just some fishy PR stunt? Sure. But with a point. It was 3M's way of announcing that Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company has come out with an offset printing plate that is developed not in the conventional way, with processed chemicals that can pollute the environment, but with a water-soluble coating so harmless it won't even sully a fish tank.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

However you look at it, that dive into the tank represents hope for the environment. One big chemical company eliminates a process that produced polluting byproducts. Even more encouraging, the dive typifies a new trend -- a commitment by industry and government alike to deal effectively with hazardous wastes and a surge of inventive ways to do it.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, factories have been spewing out hazardous waste, but only recently has there been any apparent awareness of its threat to health, drinking water, and the environment. Now there's a determination to solve the problem.

"The science of waste management is just beginning to emerge from the Dark Ages," said one speaker at a Washington conference in October on "Management of Uncontrolled Hazardous Waste Sites," sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

To which Deputy EPA Administrator Barbara Blum added, "We are awakening to the fact that ultimate solutions to the hazardous waste problem must involve all of us." By "all of us" she meant industry, government, and the public.

At the moment, the whole American chemical industry is in a state of revolution, if not shock. For the first time in its history the way it disposes of its hazardous waste is going to be federally regulated, right down to the last obnoxious ounce. Nov. 19 is when it all begins happening, when all the careless, sloppy old ways of dumping hazardous byproducts into pits, ponds, lagoons, and leaky landfills go out the window.

On the date, six months after EPA announced its long- awaited interim standards for the treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste, the new ways of doing things will get going. These regulations were issued under RCRA -- the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act signed by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976.

Under a new system beginning this month, all generators of hazardous waste -- including manufacturers and users of dangerous chemicals -- as well as transporters of the stuff, must keep accurate records of this material from the point of origin to final disposal in some secure landfill or incinerator, and make a strict accounting to EPA for every pound of it.

Exacting standards also go into force requiring proper management of hazardous wastes at facilities that treat, store, or dispose of it. EPA hopes to issue by the end of this year -- or by spring at the latest -- detailed regulations covering the design, performance, and operation of these facilities.

In addition, under RCRA's "imminent-hazard provision," EPA can force an owner of a dangerous dump site, abandoned or otherwise, to clean up the mess. EPA is committed to a vigorous enforcement program. It has already filed 51 court cases, and 200 more cases are under investigation for possible legal action.

This determination to rid the country once and for all of the kind of thoughtless dumping that has led to more than one Love Canal is the next logical step in America's continuing commitment to a clean environment. Congress with its clean air and clean water acts left land as the last drain for the deposit of waste. Now the soil itself must be preserved from pollution tht destroys vegetation and has begun to seep silently down into aquifers, the rocky formations that supply 50 percent of the nation's drinking water.

What is new is the realization finally dawning on everybody that the ground can take just so much gunk.

Those in industry and government responsible for disposing of the 57 million metric tons of hazardous waste pouring out of US plants every year know now that there are intelligent ways of dealing with dangerous chemicals. And they are moving in that direction.

Of more than 30,000 sites in the United States that are used for treatment, disposal, or storage, EPA estimates that 2,000 may pose significant risks to human health and the environment and that 7,000 may require some sort of remedy. The agency is adding about 400 sites a month to its growing inventory of sites needing attention.

The reason there are so many hazardous waste sites is tht industry has available to it a cheap, easy way to get rid of its waste byproducts -- dig a hole in the backyard and dump it.

Until the last couple of years, when contamination from leaky sites has come to light, this was the accepted mode of disposal. A survey by a congressional committee shows that 93 percent of all hazardous wastes generated by the 50 largest chemical firms during the last 30 years has been disposed of on the manufacturer's site.

One of the aims of RCRA is not to fault any group but to make the nation aware of the need to improve the way dangerous materials are handled.

RCRA has now closed the option of unregulated backdoor dumping. Its demand for secure, carefully monitored landfills, with any leakage drained off and treated, would drive up the cost of this widespread method of disposal. Landfills will probably remain the least expensive means of disposal but will never again be as cheap as before. Thus Uncle Sam has given industry an economic incentive to clean house. This is changing everything.

"The major emphasis in industry today is on reducing the size and neutralizing the hazardous characteristic of waste," says Dr. William Duvel, manager of environmental engineering for the large consulting firm of Environmental Research & Technology in Concord, Mass.

"For some time there has been a tremendous stress on recycling and destruction of hazardous materials. But with the implementation of hazardous materials. But with the implementation of RCRA regulations, these have been receiving intensive effort.

"The trend we see is that a lot of firms are changing their operations so they don't have to deal with hazardous materials. That's particularly true of small users. To avoid having to do all that fancy footwork to comply with EPA regulations, they are simply eliminating that material and substituting another."

For big manufacturers of chemical products, he says, one option is just to "maximize elimination of their burps and drools -- industry slang for bad batches, vents that let go, and other inadvertent phenomena going on."

Another definite trend Dr. Duvel notes is toward less dumping and more incineration. Oddly, the two basic ways to get rid of waste are the same for 20 th-century man as they were for primitive man: Burn it or bury it -- or both.

Many experts in the hazardous waste field agree that burning is best. "The reason for that is that you solve the problem permanently," Dr. Duvel says. "The waste literally does go away. You have destroyed it and neutralized it. And the volume of the residue you still have to deal with is far less than the volume you originally had.

As he sees it, industry is being propelled in these various directions by EPA's new regulations and by a public thoroughly aroused by Love Canal and other oozing dump sites.

(The Love Canal site itself has now been contained, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The disposal site has been sealed off with a three-foot-deep layer of clay, virtually impervious to rain. A deep trench has been dug to drain off and treat the leachate -- the mixture of hazardous chemicals and water that leaked out of the site and vaporized into houses on abutting property. And many families living close to the site have been relocated. While these steps have been taken to close off the site itself, the larger issue of possible damage done to the environment and health of the neighborhood remains a matter of study and debate, with the extent of medical rehabilitation claims an enormous and unknown factor.)

What is new and alarming for industry is its corporate liabilities under RCRA. Medical rehabilitation claims that could reach in the billions of dollars are another incentive to render hazardous wastes safe. Indeed, some companies, he says, are seriously considering whether they can even stay in business in view of these dramatic changes.

Dr. Robert D. Stephens, a former industrial chemist now with the California Department of Health Services, who has been in his state's waste cleanup program since it began in the early '70s, reports that "the technical community in the US and other Western nations has really rallied to this problem of hazardous waste disposal in the last few years.

"I think we will see the growth of technology applied to this problem. In the past it has not been applied to it because there was an inexpensive option.

"In the 1960s environmental concern was not an issue that was very popular in most industries," he says. "What companies operate on are their bright people who want to be successful in the industry. In those days you would not be successful having environmental concerns. Protecting the environment cost money. It wasn't part of the profit. It was a subsidiary issue relegated to personnel out of the mainstream of things. In lieu of early retirement, they were given jobs to control environmental issues.

"I think there has been a great deal of change in that throughout the '70s. Now there are some bright, motivated people withinm corportions dealing with these issues. Business is placing its goodm personnel on environmental issues because it sees its corporate interests are served by it. . . .

"When we meet with companies on uncontrolled hazardous waste site problems, they bring in their high-level corporate people to deal with EPA and the states." And, he reports, "We've had a lot of success in California in dealing with the petroleum, power-generating, and other industries often on very tough problems."

Some states, distressed at leaky dump sites being turned up within their borders, are playing their part, falling in line behind EPA in enforcement activity.

California has been a leader in managing waste from its great oil fields and other chemical operations. In fact RCRA used as its model California's system of keeping track of wastes from point of origin to point of disposal. In Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay Area alone, 18 large companies are cooperating with Dr. Stephen's office to solve disposal problems.

This same burgeoning interest in solutions showed up at the EPA's Washington conference on managing uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.

"My impression," Dr. Stephens says, "is that finally there are many talented people addressing this problem and making some progress on it. Two years ago this wasn't happening. You could have put all of them around a card table. How many people are attending this conference? Seven hundred.

"That is not to say that all the solutions are at hand. But a lot of talented people are making attempts at solutions and not in an hysterical way. This was a technology conference."

Nevertheless, he adds, "the bottom line is: What are the environmental and health effects from the hazardous waste sites we are finding? that issue was not well addressed. The reason it wasn't is that we don't have much information on that. There aren't really good experts you can invite to talk about that. Maybe in two more years we'll have a conference on that."

What the three-day gathering of scientists, engineers, government representatives, and commercial consultants from across the country did hear was how the Chemical Manufacturers Association is tackling the waste problem.

At its headquarters in Washington, CMA has established a Hazardous Waste Response Center. More than 50 representatives from its member companies devote between one-quarter to one-half their time to task groups.

One of these task groups is determining where gaps in technology exist and what should be done to close them. For instance, rusting and leaking drums are a chief cause of trouble in old-style landfill operations. CMA is examining development of incinerable drums for the transport and burning of hazardous wastes.

Experiments in land farming are also under way.These experiments involve plowing degradable wastes from oil refineries, for example, into the soil, allowing the same sort of biological action to degrage this waste that occurs in sewage treatment.

CMA believes that vaulting -- specially constructed underground facilities for preserving containers of hazardous waste in perpetual care -- now being used in Europe may also prove useful in the US.

The Hazardous Waste Response Center run by CMA is helping government agencies neutralize "orphan" disposal sites (dumps whose owners are unknown or found unable to pay for cleanup operations).

Besides all this, CMA has held six seminars across the counry on the design and management of safe disposal facilities. It has also drafted a model state law to help states find new sites where hazardous waste can be handled in years to come.

3M in St. Paul is one worldwide chemical corporation that has become enthusiastic about pollution prevention. Its Chemolite incineration system, developed with the help of Dow Chemical Company, was considered tops when it was completed in 1972. It has operated around the clock ever since to dispose of wastes from many of its plants without creating pollution problems. It is still recognized as an outstanding incinerator.

Under its five-year-old "Pollution Prevention Pays" program, 3M has eliminated many thousands of tons of air, water, sludge, and solid waste pollution and in the process saved a total of $41 million in energy costs between 1975 and '79.

At one 3M plant in the Midwest, hydrocarbon emissions could have been burned off to prevent pollution, but the company goes better: The hydrocarbon-laden air is cycled into the main boiler at the plant to produce steam, which is used to power the plant. Installing the equipment cost $275,000. But 3M figures that every year its savings in energy production equal that investment.

Another vast multinational company, Velsicol Chemical Corporation of Chicago, had its image badly tarnished in 1978 when it became known that a dozen families living next to its 24-acre landfill in Toone, Tenn., were smelling and tasting in their well water dangerous chemicals that appeared to come from the disposal site.

In recounting the incident, John M. Rademacher, vice- president in charce of environmental, health, and regulatory affairs, conceded that the company had historicaly not acted on environmental concerns until forced to do so. "But from that date," he says, "a new charter was forged, with environmental security as Velsicol's first priority."

A well-funded environmental affairs department was set up which today includes 55 technicians. Velsicol reimbursed the affected families in many ways (including replumbing all their homes), contributed $25,000 to the town of Toone to extend a permanent water supply to the area, and has just completed laying a two-foot-thick cap of clay over the disposal site, which incorporates a monitoring system for testing ground and surface waters.

At the EPA meeting in Washington, one conferee expressed the opinion that Velsicol may have been selected to tell its story because it was so unusual in the chemical industry. But stories like this may be heard often in the near future.

On Oct. 21, W.R. Grace & Co., another giant chemical company, agreed to clean up two lagoons and a landfill on the property of its Acton, Mass., plant and to restore to "fully workable condition" the aquifer under this site, which feeds two town wells. A timetable for the cleanup was established. A $2,500-a-day fine hangs over the company if it should fail to meet any of its deadlines.

A story in this space last April told how agitation by Acton citizens had forced the closing of those wells and led to an inestigation by federal officials resulting in the agreement just signed, which forestalls a court trial scheduled for Nov. 10.

"I would say the consent decree came about in part because the prosecution was very vigorous." says Assistant US Attorney Caroline Grace (no connection with the Grace Company) in Boston.

Nationwide this is only the fourth case that has been resolved under RCRA's new standards. "I hope other chemical companies will see the writing on the wall and will agree to do what has to be done," Attorney Grace says. "I think it is a wonderful opportunity for the government and the company to cooperate in making an important contribution to the solution of a very serious problem."

EPA is doing much more than prosecute such cases to clean up sites known to be causing damage. Its laboratories in various parts of the country are researching ways to identify and clean up dangerous disposal sites.

* EPA's Environmental Monitoring Systems Lab in Las Vegas, N.M., is using aerial photography to spot and identify possible abandoned chemical landfills and identify by using thermal infrared scanners and color infrared film. Heat radiating from the ground may indicate heat-reactive chemicals in buried waste. Often these dumps, unseen at ground level, have been discovered right next to fields of corn and other crops destined for the food market. Several states have been photographed in this way in the last two years.

* Experiments are revealing that portable radar and microwave equipment can be used to detect the presence of such objects as buried drums without risking the damage that drilling holes in the ground might cause.

* Since right now incineration is regarded as the most promising technique for disposing of hazardous waste, much EPA effort is going in that direction.

Its Industrial Environment Research Lab in Cincinnati is finding out for the first time what really happens from beginning to end inside the inferno of an incinerator as it burns up hazardous waste. Laboratory studies on the physics of combustion are now complete. By next June EPA hopes to finish building a new incinerator at the National Center for Toxological Research at Pine Bluff, Ark. There pilot operations will continue this research to determine how long various types of hazardous waste must remain in an incinerator and how hot the furnace must be to destroy the waste which industry now claims it is destroying in a number of big industrial incinerators. Under RCRA regulations, all incinerators will have to be licensed to continue operating. Another key question EPA hopes to answer is which wastes are compatible in the incineration process.

* Incineration at sea is also being considered. The Dutch vessel Vulcanus has already burned up in the vast expanses of the mid-Pacific Ocean the US Air Force's complete stock of Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the Vietnam war. Federal funding is being sought to encourage the commercial construction and operation of a US flag incinerator ship.

* EPA is also looking into the idea of burning hazardous wastes on abandoned offshore oil drilling platforms, as well as in cement kilns, and in conventional industrial oilers and blast furnaces.

* EPA's Municipal Environmental Research Lab in Edison, N.J., is developing prototype waste-controlling equipment and techniques which it will ultimately encourage industry to produce. This lab, which is testing various cleanup technologies, is already responding to emergency spills.

Some prototype cleanup vans are now commercially available. One system, mounted on a semitrailer, treats 100 gallons of contaminated water per minute, removing hazardous chemicals.

A mobile incinerator is nearly completed which can be taken to a hazardous waste dump to destroy chemicals on site. Had such equipment been commercially available last April, it could have been taken to a warehouse in Elizabeth, N.J. , and used to safely dispose of 40,000 drums of chemical wastes. Instead, on Earth Day, ironically, the warehouse exploded and burned, sending a thick black plume of smoke and ash over 15 square miles.

* For residuals that have to be stored in landfills, EPA's Municipal Environmental Research Lab in Cincinnati is studying how to encapsulate drums. So Far, a preformed polyethylene jacket reinforced with fiber glass has proved to be a strong, flexible casing, impervious to chemical leaching.

No matter what is burned, or otherwise destroyed, something is always left over. New landfills, therefore, are urgently needed to accommodate those wastes that can be neither prevented nor further reduced in volume.

People are now thoroughly alert to the dangers of hazardous chemical wastes.The very thought of having even a secure landfill anywhere near them is anathema to most Americans today. It's an attitude referred to in the trade as NIMBY -- "not in my backyard."

Yet those visitors to the Shedd Aquarium would probably be surprised to realized that they -- along with industry -- are responsible for the hazardous waste problem that America -- and every other industrialized country -- face today. They want the cars, plastics, photographic equipment, etc., that have become a part of modern society. But they want nothing to do with the inevitable byproducts.

Some parts of the US -- such as New England -- have no secure hazardous waste landfills at all. These states are eager to benefit from the products, jobs, taxes, and other economic benefits flowing from the presence of industrial plants within their borders. But they prefer to ship the resulting hazardous wastes over hundreds of highway miles to other states, whose economic benefits is far less.

EPA Administrator Douglas M. Costle is urging governors to support establishment of new, safe hazardous waste management facilities in their states.He estimates that between 50 and 125 new facilities will be needed over the next several years.

"Our citizens," he says, "want the benefits to society that created those wastes. They must come to understand that all of us, in every state and locality, share responsibility for locating safe waste management sites."

Next: What other countries are doing to manage hazardous waste safely.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...