Choose Your Poison U.S. Plans To Import PCBs Fueling a Burning Controversy BY MICHAEL KING PCBS WILL BE COMING HOME to roost. That’s the message from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which last year began changing the regulations governing the importation of polychloriindustrial chemicals once used as lubricants and as insulators in electric transformers. Because of their long-established toxicity and carcinogenic properties, PCBs have not been commercially produced in the U.S. for many years, and since 1980 the importation of PCBseven for purposes of hazardous waste disposalhas been banned by the EPA. The ban, in theory, has already ended; last November 22, the EPA permitted the importation of PCBs from Canada for destruc -tion at the S.D. Myers Corporation incinerator near Akron, Ohio. But the Canadian government acting partly in response to pressure from the Canadian hazardous waste industryclosed its border to the transfer of PCBs, creating at least a temporary stalemate. In the meantime, however, an EPA task force has been busy, and acting under a policy it calls “enforcement discretion,” is re-writing the regulations governing the importation of PCBs not only from Canada, but from Mexico, Panama, Guam, and perhaps elsewhere. If, as the EPA expects, the new rules are allowed to take effect, sometime this spring the U.S. in general and Texas in particular will become the destination of many thousands of tons of PCB-contaminated wasteand the hazardous waste incinerators \(for example, ceive a considerable boost in the amount of high-risk materials available for burning. It’s a development hardly welcomed by the people who live in the neighborhoods near the incinerators. “The people who live in these communities do not want these materials burned there,” says Ellen Connett, co-editor of Waste Not, an environmentalist newsletter published in New York which monitors the incineration issues. On the surface, the change in EPA policy seems virtually lunaticwhy should the U.S. volunteer to run the risk of importing additional toxic chemicals, solely for the purpose of destruction? “Why should we be the dumping ground for the world?” asked LaNell Anderson, a Channelview resident who says her East Harris County town has been blighted by the nearby Deer Park incinerator owned by Rollins Environmental Services, the largest U.S. hazardous waste firm. But like most environmental problems, the PCB situation is much more complicated than it first appears, and public primary consideration of the people in charge of solving the problem. According to Tony Baney, head of the Washington-based EPA study group rewriting the PCB import regulations, the new policy is being driven by economics: the economics of international competi tion, and the economics of waste disposal itself. When the ban on importation was first imposed, Baney said, it had two purposes: to reduce additional PCB exposure risk in the U.S., and to allow foreign countrieswhich previously had no means of disposing of PCBsto develop their own disposal industries. Those technologies, he and moreover, recent international agreements mandate the new EPA policy. “The effect is to put the U.S. regulations more in line with the standards of the 1992 Basel Convention for the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, and Their Disposal.” Trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT also call for the freer international movement of hazardous waste, ostensibly for the purpose of more efficient \(and stringent controls often backfire because they are too expensive: “If it costs too much to manage waste, people don’t manage it properly.” Baney’s comments were echoed by Miguel Mulioz, who administers the Mexican government’s program for the export and disposal of PCBs. He says that while there are two companies in Mexico capable of dealing with low-level, oil-contaminated PCBs, there is no local method for addressing highly contaminated wastes, and that currently they must be shipped for incineration to one of four European locations. “That is both much more dangerous and much more expensive,” said Munoz, “than the faster and cheaper shipment to the U.S.” He added that the Mexican government estimates that there are eight thousand liquid tons of PCBs in various Mexican locations awaiting disposal between now and the year 2000, including four hundred tons ready to go immediately. “If we cannot get approval to ship it to the U.S.,” said Murioz, “it will have to go to Finland, the U.K., France, or the Netherlands, for incineration there.” Although most ordinary citizens might hesitate to invite toxic waste into their backyards, the owners of American hazardous waste companies are not so reluctant. They face increasing competition here and abroad, as well as diminishing quantities of readily accessible toxic waste, and they are eager to get their hands on new, and lucrative, sourcesaccording to one estimate, Ohio’s S.D. Myers expects to earn one hundred million dollars a year from Canadian imports alone. Counterpunch magazine reported in January that the corporation, after five years of its own failure at EPA, persuaded the Ohio congressional delegation \(led by Senator John Glenn and CongressSecretary Ron Brown and EPA director Carol Browner to allow the imports. “They said it was ‘a jobs issue,”‘ said Ken Farber, speaking of Glenn and Sawyer. Farber is an American attorney who represents a Canadian waste firm, Chem Security. He said the congressmen argued that if the border were opened, there would be more job opportunities for American workers. “But this is not a jobs issue,” responded Farber, “it’s a public safety issue.” Farber believes that the EPA violated its own rules by acting on self-assumed “enforcement discretion,” overturning its long-standing policy of avoiding “unreasonable risks” as long as there are “reasonable alternatives.” Farber is defending his own client’s economic interests, but he insists that increased “On average, the body burden of dioxins in the U.S. population is already at a level known to cause negative health effects.” 4 MARCH 8, 1996
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