Incineration: US EPA's Bankrupt Policies

a CounterMedia Backgrounder

by Liane Clorfene-Casten

Now that the Retail Rate Law has been consigned into oblivion with the stroke of Governor Edgar's pen, folks might think that the dangers of incineration are gone. They're not and these burning machines continue to spew out their deadly toxins every day across the state. The local and national press-- owned by, and ever the friend of polluting industries, remain silent on that which is a serious hazard to the nation's health.

If anyone were to identify the dirtiest waste management technology presently operating, the answer, hands down is the incineration of garbage, medical and hazardous waste--even in "state of the art" machines. No present burning machine can successfully do away with all the toxins coming out of the smokestack: dioxin, fieriness, heave metals (especially lead, cadmium and mercury,) and new combinations of unidentified toxic ash formed during the incineration process--and the EPA knows this. US hazardous waste incinerators produce at least 324 million pounds per year of ash residues--often more toxic than the original--which are then buried in toxic landfills. It's all good for business, but it's not healthy for the environment or humans and the health data exist to prove this. For every .01 percent decrease in efficiency, 100 percent more pollution is released into the air.

In traditional incinerators, metals are not destroyed. In fact they are often released in forms that are far more dangerous than the original wastes. At least 19 metals have been identified in the air emissions of hazardous waste incinerators. An average-sized commercial incinerator burning hazardous waste with an average metals content emits these metals into the air at the rate of 204 pounds per year and deposits another 670,000 pounds per year of metals in its residual ashes and liquids.

A Greenpeace report, Playing With Fire, states, "For the more volatile metals, such as lead, cadmium and mercury, as much as 50 percent of the metal fed into the incinerator may be emitted in stack gasses. For most metals, the proportion emitted in stack gasses increases with higher temperature and higher chlorine content in the wastes.

"Based on estimates of the average metals content of incinerated hazardous waste ...a commercial incinerator burning 70 million pounds of hazardous waste per year emits 204,000 pounds per year of heavy metals in its stack gasses and deposits another 670,000 pounds per a year of heavy metals in solid and liquid residues.

"Unburned chemicals/particles of incomplete combustion or PICs/are emitted in the stack gasses of all hazardous waste combustion systems. These chemicals escape into the air as fugitive emissions during storage, transfer and handling. Even if an average -sized commercial incinerator achieves 99.99 percent destruction and removal efficiency (DRE) during every second of operation with every chemical burned, it releases unburned chemicals at the rate of 7,000 pounds per year. The methods used to calculate DRE greatly underestimate actual emissions.

...Releases of unburned chemicals for a commercial incinerator of average capacity may actually be as high as 70,000 or even 700,000 pounds per year.

"PICs are emitted in the stack gasses and deposited in the residual ashes and liquids of all hazardous waste incinerators. According to US EPA, hazardous waste incinerators release 'thousands' of PICs. Some of these compounds are far more dangerous than others. Dioxin-- which are the inevitable result of any burn and which the EPA says must be burned to 99.9999 DRE- -fieriness, PCBs and other complex organochlorines are among the most toxic of the persistent bioaccumulative PICs emitted by waste-burning facilities." Based on this estimate, an average commercial incinerator releases approximately 700,000 pounds of PICs a year into the air. Total PIC emissions from all US waste burners are estimated to be 75 million pounds per year."

As for burning medical waste, hospitals generate 15 to 25 pounds of waste per bed a day. A 5.9 percent annual growth rate in medical waste means that its total US quantity doubled form 300,000 tons in 1980 to 600,000 tons in 1990--much of this coming from disposable plastics in terms of the bulk and toxicity of medical waste. The chlorine content of PVC's and other plastics results in increased production of dioxin and fieriness and other organochlorines.

The result of all this rush to burn: Cancer, birth defects, reproductive, immune and endocrine dysfunction, neurological damage, and increased respiratory ailments occur at very low exposures to many of the metals, organochlorines and other pollutants re leased onto the air. Mercury attacks the central nervous system; cadmium causes diseases of the liver, kidney, bone morrow and respiratory system; chromium causes disease of the blood, lungs, eyes and skin; arsenic leads to cancer and disorders of the liver and kidneys; lead causes brain damage and mental retardation in children and kidney failure and liver and heart disease in adults. Dioxin, the most toxic of chemicals, causes a wide spectrum of cancer and birth defects--starting in utero.

Yet, EPA, the agency mandated to monitor for the health of this country, seems to love this environmental mess--in violation of its own rules. Influence, money and power systems are in place. WMX and fellow burning companies love it. Mayor Daley's brother, William loves it since he sits on the board of WMX subsidiary, Wheelabrator and enjoys big clout with Clinton.

Toxic burning machines are the unquestioned waste disposal response in four of the six states within EPA Region V's jurisdiction alone.

Let's tour US EPA Region V. Four of the six states in Region V -- Indiana, listed as first, Ohio second, Michigan third, and Illinois seventh -- are identified as the most polluted in the country -- based on a summary of toxic indicators, including toxic chemical releases left on site, toxic chemicals sent off site, and total toxic chemical releases.

In addition to the vast scope of WMX burning machines we have:

Region V isn't alone. The EPA folks at Region VI have up and running a machine burning the dioxin-contaminated soil in famous Times Beach, Missouri--against the wishes of nearly every local citizen. The new glitz in EPA plans is that soil marked for incineration at Times Beach may be far more dangerous than the EPA has led citizens to believe. PCBs have been found in one fourth of the soil to be burned. The PCB presence was a fact known to the EPA for over 20 years. In fact, citizens uncovered a September 12, 1972 letter from a EPA official to Monsanto Research Labs confirming that the agency and Monsanto were sharing lab reports and physical samples of oil taken from the storage tank at Bliss Oil Disposal Company. Monsanto appears to be the culprit since it was the sole producer of PCBs in Sauget, Illinois and some of the waste oil sprayed for dust control by contractor Russell Bliss might have contained PCBs as well as dioxin. EPA silence smacks of a cover-up.

Until the full range of the PCB contamination is known, the local citizens demand the burning be halted, since it will be impossible to determine what emissions are coming out. Officials are raring to go, nonetheless. In the meantime, Linda Birnbaum, director of experimental toxicology at US EPA spoke at a meeting held in St. Louis in June, 1996, advising local Times Beach residents, not to eat food "from their own little gardens."

And EPA, Region VII is doing a major dioxin burn in Coffeyville, Kansas, a town of about 25,000 that has been the site of PCB burning since 1985. That stuff (including huge mounds of toxic ash) comes from the failed incinerator efforts at Jacksonville, Arkansas, where 27,000 barrels of Agent Orange had been left by the Vertac Company after the Vietnam war. The Arkansas incinerator, built smack in the heart of the town, was finally shut down in 1994, having been cited by OSHA with too many violations to continue. Malfunction, explosions, and fires finally reached epidemic stage, causing serious damage to workers in the plant. EPA Region VI had looked the other way in Jacksonville since 1978 and aggressively supported the burn right through various cour t challenges. Test results these days indicate elevated dioxin levels in a number of Jacksonville citizens.

And thanks to incineration, a 1995 Barry Commoner study states dioxin contamination is spreading across and into the Great Lakes. The chemical travels from 1,500 miles away.

The American Public Health Association estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the solid waste the US produces could be recycled, reduced, reused or composted rather than burned. They further estimate that as of 1993, approximately 1/3 of the landfills in the US have been filled and by the year 2000, approximately 193 million tons of solid waste will be generated in the US each year.

It doesn't have to be. Now comes a technology for disposing of all organic waste with absolutely none of the standard problems. Wayland Swain, Ph.D., Vice President of ECO LOGIC and developer of the "Destructor," a new technology for organic matter--including harbor sediments, landfill soil, leachates and lagoon sludges--states his new process can completely dispose of all organic waste like garbage, plastics, and organochlorines such as dioxin, PCBs, & DDT. He has a series of EPA Superfund tests to prove it. As for metals (mercury, copper, iron, cadmium, etc.) and even nuclear waste, Swain says while the E-L technology is not available for treating either, there is already sufficient technology to separate these various materials from the organochlorines so that they are clumped together and someone else can come in and subject the separated materials to further treatment, recycling, or disposal. They can even break down the white protective suits used by workers--which disappear within 15 minutes.

The mobile, closed-loop process is cheaper, cleaner, safer, and healthier. Nothing escapes; the remaining methane gas is recycled for fuel, and the remaining dirt is so clean, it can be carted away for playground use.

EPA conducted extensive tests of the "Destructor" technology under its "Superfund Innovative Technology Evaluation" program in Bay City, Michigan during October and November, 1992. The machines were tested formally. Wastewater containing an average 4,600 ppm PCBs and waste oil containing an average 24.5 percent PCBs were tested-- in triplicate. The findings are remarkable: "A 99.9999% destruction and removal efficiency for PCBs during all the test runs; a 99.99% destruction efficiency for perchloroethylene; net destruction of trace feedstock dioxin and furan compounds during all test runs; and successful completion of a 72-hour engineering performance test. These king of test results are impossible using present-day incineration. It is the first non-incineration method to be considered for high-level PCB destruction presently in place .

How did it happen? Without burning anything?

ECO LOGIC has developed a gas-phase, thermo-chemical reduction reaction of hydrogen with organic and chlorinated organic compounds using elevated temperatures to transform the hazardous contaminants into excess hydrogen, methane and a small amount of water vapor. At 850 degrees Celsius or higher, hydrogen combines with organic contaminated compounds in an efficient reaction known as reduction, producing lighter, smaller products. The presence of water, which can serve as a reducing agent and a source of hydrogen, enhances the reaction. And because hydrogen can produce an atmosphere devoid of free oxygen, the possibility of dioxin or furan production is eliminated. When treating high concentration organic wastes, the E-L process produces excess reformed gas--which can be compressed and stored for later use, either as fuel to fire the boiler, or as a fuel product for resale. the gasses either re-circulate into the process or provide supplementary fuel for the system. It's a closed system; nothing unplanned escapes. No toxic ash remains, and surrounding communities are exposed to no hazards. (There are 114 articles of patent.)

This new technology means costs are down. Operating economies to treat water-bearing waste are expected to be three to five times cheaper than incineration technologies of comparable capacities, especially since there are no residuals or toxic ash to be transported somewhere else. And the machine itself is very mobile. Once the job is done, the machine is hoisted on top of a large trailer, and moved to the next site.

Swain announced the company has signed with General Motors of Ontario, Canada to dispose of that company's wastes in what he considers will be a "model cleanup." ECO LOGIC also has contracts with the government of Australia and other local Canadian businesses. And, he is in the talking stage with the Department of Defense -- with the hope he can land the very lucrative business of disposing of their chemical weapons.

One would think that the EPA would be thrilled to get its hands on this safer disposal method. Not so.

Why are municipalities not flocking to this cleaner, safer, cheaper method? Answer: government-sponsored waste management falls under the RCRA (Resource Conservation & Recovery Act,) laws and must be approved by Region EPA offices. Enter political clout. Region V and VI is a playground for incinerator developers and it looks as if nothing is going to stop the lucrative process, however harmful to human health.

Wayland Swain isn't connected to any power person in the government. His calls to his former associate, Region V administrator, Valdas Adamkus, the only holdover from the Reagan-Bush administrations, are not returned. So, all the while Swain is getting contracts in Canada and Australia (now filling up the 1996 calendar,) thousands of innocent US citizens across the country are going to be made sick. After all, systems--however malevolent-- are in place.