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EPA Incinerator Approvals to Speed PCB Disposal
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the Nation's first two disposal facilities that can safely destroy high concentrations of toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Both facilities are high-temperature incinerators.
The Agency's action represents a major step forward in dealing with one of the Nation's lengthiest and most severe environmental headaches. As a result, the problem of what to do with many millions of pounds of PCB-containing waste oils now kept in storage may be nearing resolution.
Adlene Harrison, EPA's Regional Administrator in Dallas, on January 23 approved an incinerator in Deer Park, Texas, owned by Rollins Environmental Services. It is the first commercial chemical waste incinerator in the U.S. to be approved for PCB destruction. On January 28, Harrison also approved a similar facility owned by ENSCO (Energy Systems Company), located in El Dorado, Arkansas. The two incinerators could begin destroying contaminated waste oil as early as March.
Tests on both incinerators in 1979 determined that they could destroy more than 99.9999 percent of the PCBs in waste oil that contained high levels of the chemicals. Additional tests were conducted in 1980 as an added precaution to insure that the local environment and public health would not be threatened in any way by use of the incinerators.
Growing concern over health and environmental problems caused by PCBs led to the passage of legislation in 1976 which banned production and many uses of this family of chemicals. EPA regulations subsequently defined this requirement in detail and established rules for disposing of waste PCBs safely. Regulations issued by EPA in 1978 on the disposal of PCBs require that wastes containing over 500 parts per million of PCBs--called "high-level" wastes--can only be disposed of safely using EPA-approved incinerators, operating under carefully controlled conditions at extremely high temperatures (greater than 1200 degrees C).
As a result of the legislation and subsequent EPA regulations, about 20 million pounds of high-level PCB-containing oils, primarily from heavy-duty electrical equipment , have been taken out of service since 1978. They have remained in storage ever since, awaiting EPA approval of a safe and effective means of disposal, such as the Rollins and ENSCO incinerators. The Agency expects that additional incinerators will be approved in the future, though no such approvals are imminent.
Manufactured since 1929, PCBs are a family of chemicals with low flammability and low conductivity, characteristics which led to their widespread use as cooling liquids and dielectric fluids in transformers and capacitors. They have also been used as heat transfer and hydraulic fluids; dye carriers in carbonless paper copy paper; plasticizers in paints, adhesives and caulking compounds; fillers in investment casting waxes; and dust control agents, sealants and coatings on roads.
PCBs have been shown to cause skin cancer, reproductive failures, gastric disorders, skin lesions and other serious effects in laboratory animals. They are also suspected of causing cancer and other serious effects in humans.
Since PCBs are highly stable chemicals, they break down slowly and persist in the environment for many years; they also accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and animals. They are the only chemicals specifically banned by the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.