18. PCBs: Importing Poison

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Sources: THE TEXAS OBSERVER Dates: March 8, 1996; April 19, 1996, Titles: “Choose Your Poison”; and “Poisoned Welcome,” Author: Michael King; SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN, Date: April 24, 1996, Title: “Importing Toxic Waste,” Author: Jim Hightower

SSU Censored Researchers: Bob Browne, Jeffrey Fillmore

In March 1996, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA) repealed a 16-year-old ban on the importation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), once used as lubricants for electrical transformers. Production and use of PCBs ended in the U.S. after it was learned that they are highly toxic carcinogens.

U.S. industries have disposed of most domestic PCBs. The preferred disposal method to date is burning. Five sites in the U.S. are approved for incineration of PCBs. Meanwhile, our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, have continued to collect old transformers and PCBs, and have stockpiled them, having no safe method of disposal. The ban on importation ideally would compel these other countries to develop their own safe methods of disposal. That hasn’t happened. Mexico, for example, still exports this toxic waste to Europe to be destroyed, and as of March had stockpiled about 8,000 tons of liquid PCBs.

Importation of Mexico’s and Canada’s PCBs is not a response to our neighbors’ looming environmental difficulties so much as it is a response to U.S. waste companies’ desire to establish lucrative new disposal contracts. Congressional representatives from Ohio, where one waste incineration site is located, reportedly lobbied, at the request of the local waste disposal firm, for the EPA to lift the ban. The firm, S.D. Meyers, would earn an estimated $100 million dollars from new contracts to dispose of Canadian toxic waste. Some experts doubt that U.S. disposal firms would be more efficient than Canadian firms, but they are certainly cheaper, sometimes running about one-quarter of the cost.

Scientists also believe the burning of toxic waste is inherently unsafe, with PCB incineration releasing such hazardous chemicals as dioxins, even PCBs themselves, into the air and water, and eventually the food chain. One chemist said that stored PCBs, even in such mass quantities, are not nearly as harmful as burned PCBs. For example, neighbors of an Arkansas disposal site reported black smoke and noxious fumes coming from that plant. Cancer cases and neurological disorders in the nearby town increased dramatically as well.

Moreover, predictions of the effects of PCB incineration are based on how emissions would affect theoretically clean air. But sites that would incinerate PCBs also burn a variety of other hazardous chemicals; add these emissions to air that is already polluted by other sources. PCB incineration does not, therefore, create a problem that may or may not be significant; it makes an existing problem even worse.

COMMENTS: According to Michael King, associate editor of The Texas Observer, “mainstream coverage of this story was confined to an AP dispatch or two, with no attention paid to the larger issues of PCB manufacture and the question of safe disposal (i.e., without incineration). There may have been a couple of stories at the time the ban was technically lifted; I have seen no coverage at all of the subsequent status of re-importation.”

King believes the obvious benefit of additional media coverage “would be public education of the ongoing risks involved in PCB incineration specifically, and toxic waste incineration generally.” King describes the “massive public risk” in Texas, where there are two hazardous waste incinerators as well as other sources, such as cement kilns, which have even less regulation, “and the prevailing winds certainly do not stop in Texas,” he says. “Great Lakes pollution has been traced to Texas and the Southeast—the continuing inattention to the dangers of waste incineration constitute a largely unacknowledged public health threat nationally and internationally.

“The obvious beneficiary of limited coverage is the hazardous waste industry (producers and incinerators). They have succeeded in maintaining the fiction that incineration destroys hazardous waste, when science and experience demonstrate that incineration simply disperses poisons (in the case of PCBs, the products of incineration are worse than the PCBs themselves) into the air and the food chain.

“As I write, the Mexican border remains open to re-importation, and the Canadian border is expected to be opened early next year; I do not know if Mexican PCBs are currently being re-imported under the new EPA regulations. An effort by Congressman Ken Bentsen to re-instate the ban failed for a lack of Senatorial sponsorship, and the Sierra Club reports that Bentsen’s original amendment would not have been effective in any case. The Sierra Club, however, in conjunction with Greenpeace, filed a lawsuit contesting the new EPA regulations; the suit remains pending in federal court and a decision is expected in December.

“I would hope that the new attention brought by Project Censored to this story might result in public pressure against the incineration of PCBs (here or abroad), and more generally at the whole issue of the incineration of toxic waste.”