SOUTH Chicago's backyard would hardly seem worth protecting. It's already choked with rusting scrapyards, sprawling coal heaps, grimy steel mills, and garbage dumps. But snuggled among these blights is a toxic-waste incinerator - and that's where nearby residents would like to draw the line. Whatever the outcome in Chicago, incineration of toxic waste in the United States appears certain to increase. Chemical Waste Management Inc. (CWM), the giant of the toxics disposal industry, sees an increasingly important role for incineration during the 1990s.
One reason is the government-mandated cleanup of Superfund sites - abandoned toxic-waste dumps. Only 63 of 1,187 high-priority sites have been reclaimed under the 10-year-old program. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called incineration the "best demonstrated available technology."
A second reason is the 1 trillion pounds of new toxic waste that US industry generates each year, according to estimates by the EPA, which permits fewer and fewer kinds of waste to be buried.
"The EPA's regulations are driving more waste into incineration," notes Peter Daley, chief of research and development at CWM. "That will probably continue for the foreseeable future."
CWM owns the Chicago incinerator, one of 17 in the US that accepts waste from government agencies and private industry for destruction. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the facility must destroy 99.99 percent of input hazardous waste.
In addition, the incinerator is one of only four that is entitled to destroy polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) requires that PCB destruction be 99.9999 percent effective.
Visitors who brave the rutted dirt road leading past a mammoth landfill to the CWM incinerator are shown a six-minute video about the facility titled "Safely Destroying Hazardous Waste." Opponents scoff.
They object in part to CWM itself, which is 76 percent owned by Waste Management Inc. of Oak Brook, Ill. State Rep. Clem Balanoff, a leading foe, describes CWM's attitude as "cavalier."
Mr. Balanoff points to faked emissions data and $6.3 million in fines paid under consent decrees. Regulators turned down the facility's application for a permanent operating license in 1989, but allowed it to continue operating while it appealed. In February, though, the incinerator was knocked out of action when the operators burned a chemical they didn't know was explosive.
CWM spokesman Bernard Hanley says the company forced some employees to resign over the data violations, which occurred in 1986 and 1987. It also increased the number of personnel and amount of training.
As to the explosion, Mr. Hanley says, the company is revising procedures and seeking more informative manuals on the properties of chemicals.
But CWM can't do anything about the fact that "all hazardous-waste incinerators emit some of the waste that is fed to them to the air," asserts Joe Thorton, a research analyst with Greenpeace's campaign to halt the practice. RCRA and TSCA emissions standards notwithstanding, the EPA's science advisory board estimates that 1 percent of the chemicals put into an incinerator are discharged unburned or partially burned, he says.
And the incineration process forms and releases new chemicals like dioxin, Mr. Thorton adds. "In many cases those chemicals are more toxic than the original waste."
Partly incinerated compounds, counters Hanley of CWM, "present no real problem or health hazard here. What we're doing here is not a threat to health."
He, too, cites EPA data. A 1989 study attributed 0.1 percent of the emission of known carcinogens into south Chicago's air to waste-disposal facilities of all types. Steel mills accounted for 33.7 percent and vehicle traffic 13.9 percent.
The debate over incineration led Congress to require the EPA to help commercialize alternative technologies. The agency's Superfund Innovative Technology Evaluation (SITE) program currently has 56 participants demonstrating processes like membrane microfiltration, freezing separation, in-situ vitrification, and infrared thermal destruction.
Dr. Daley of CWM says any new technology must be versatile - that is, effective in enough situations to be worth the cost of development. It must not create even the appearance of an air pollution risk. And it mustn't create new problems to solve.
CWM is a SITE participant. The company's X*TRAX process will be used this summer at a Superfund project in North Dartmouth, Mass. Contaminated soil will be dug up and baked in a portable kiln, where released toxics can be captured for later incineration. Cleansed soil removed from the kiln will be put back on the site.
Since a ton of contaminated soil might contain only 100 grams of PCBs, the X*TRAX process should be 30 to 50 percent cheaper than conventional incineration of soil and all, Daley says.
Eleven of the SITE projects involve bioremediation, the use of bacteria to break down hazardous chemicals. Numerous universities also are researching the subject.
Bruce Rittmann, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Illinois, cites estimates that bioremediation could grow to a $500 million annual business by the year 2000, up from $100 million last year. A separate study calculated the overall toxic remediation and disposal business could be worth $23 billion by 1993. In 1989, it was $8.6 billion. Dr. Rittmann is working to develop computer models that would enable the bioremediation process to be optimized.
The EPA has generated some excitement over the accidental discovery that PCBs seem to vanish when mixed with quicklime. Other scientists have duplicated the EPA's results, although Daley says CWM was unable to.
Thorton of Greenpeace says the best solution would be not to generate toxic waste in the first place.
Industrial companies could make reductions, he believes, but he doubts that they will make the needed investments as long as incineration offers them a "liability-free escape" from the toxic wastes they generate.