Toxic-waste cleanups: solving problem, or relocating it?

Every day for two weeks now, 30 trucks have been rolling through the gate of a large business facility in Jackson Township, Ohio, near Cincinnati. Once unloaded, they roll back out of town, headed north.

Nothing particularly remarkable about that, right?

There wouldn't be but for one factor: Their cargo is dried sludge contaminated by PCBs, pesticide residues, and other chemicals. It is coming from the cleanup of a defunct waste-disposal company site in Swartz Creek, Mich. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks Swartz Creek 16th on its list of sites slated for cleanup with federal Superfund money.

But if this particular cleanup brings a measure of relief to the people of Swartz Creek, it does just the opposite for the residents of Jackson Township. For them, and for many others across the United States, the operation raises an important question: Do the cleanups of toxic chemical dumps merely transfer the problem somewhere else?

Yes, say local citizens groups and environmentalists who are organizing to defend their rights and properties.

No, responds the EPA, although an agency official says, ''We realize there is a crisis in terms of public confidence.'' The official adds, however, ''We would not take the stuff to a site that wasn't safe.''

Jackson Township is the home of a 438-acre commercial landfill operated by Chemical & Environmental Conservation Systems International, a firm based in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Licensed by the EPA to handle PCBs, the landfill serves a five-state area.

Says Bill Stewart, a Jackson Township retiree and president of Voting Ohioans Initiating a Clean Environment (VOICE), which is protesting the dump: ''We figure at this site we have received over a billion pounds (of toxic waste in recent years), and I believe I'm being conservative. We were told by the Ohio EPA not to be concerned about it. But we are concerned. We are forced to accept a hazardous-waste facility we do not want.''

Mr. Stewart concedes that the disposal site is kept clean. He also acknowledges that it has test wells for monitoring the purity of the ground water. But he complains that when trucks are being unloaded there and the wind is blowing the wrong way, ''it's almost impossible to stand the odors.''

And he maintains that the landfill has helped to slow economic growth in the area. Houses near the site have remained unsold four or five years after going on the market. Moreover, he says, a small stream that flows through the landfill feeds the local public water supply.

EPA officials could not say how often cleanups of waste dumps involve the transfer of toxic materials for final disposal. One source, who asked not to be identified, said, ''There is a bias . . . for on-site disposal whenever possible.''

This involves such measures as walling in and paving over contaminated soil because the alternative - excavation - can cost hundreds of dollars per cubic yard.

Liquids may have to be removed so they can be incinerated. But EPA requires that this be done at ultra-high temperatures supposed to destroy 99.99 percent of the material.

Other alternatives, such as oxidation and waste-eating bacteria, are still in the experimental or testing stages. Indeed, an EPA official says: ''We're pushing the bounds of the state of the art. Until we have the (new) technology available to us, we have to go with what is most financially feasible. Unfortunately, that means landfilling.''

Stewart says VOICE is campaigning for a congressional hearing into the situation, because Ohio law preempts local communities like Jackson Township from barring toxic-waste disposal sites. The state Waste Facility Approval Board in Columbus, the capital, determines where sites may be established.

VOICE also wants 24-hour-a-day monitoring of the air and water near the dump. But the small group cannot afford to hire legal or technical experts to help argue its case, and it has given up trying to contact the EPA, he says.

''We're between a rock and a hard place,'' Stewart claims. ''Our local representatives cannot help us. All we ask is to be heard. We're not a bunch of crabs.''

Complaints like Stewart's are becoming increasingly common across the US.

When the state of North Carolina chose a poor, rural, largely black county for disposal of huge quantities of PCB-contaminated soil last year, the resulting public outcry made national headlines for days. Last month a citizens group in Matagorda County, Texas, was poised to block the Intracoastal Waterway with fishing boats to stop the shipment of what it feared was chemically contaminated liquid from an Alabama site. The liquid - 3.5 million gallons of it - was to have been put down an injection well near Corpus Christi. It has since been disposed of in a commercial injection well in Louisiana.

The Matagorda group now is backing a bill before the Texas Legislature that would ban disposal of hazardous waste inside 100 miles of the coast. This would help protect rich agricultural and commercial fishing grounds that are a large part of the local economy.

''Our whole purpose is to stop [the] transporting [of] hazardous waste from one state to another,'' says Sharon Serafino, who leads the Matagorda citizens group. ''It's only compounding the problem.''

The EPA maintains that its relationship with the states in Superfund cleanup cases is not well understood. The two, this official says, are ''equal partners.'' If a state does not agree with the plan of attack, it can exercise a veto by refusing to put up its share of the funds to pay for the work.

The burden also is on the states to find an alternative disposal facility for any toxic materials that have to be taken off-site.

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