An Environmental Protection Agency hearing officer raised a host of objections today to the agency's proposal to allow the burning of deadly chemical waste 140 miles off the Delaware coast. He recommended that the burning permit not be granted until the issues are resolved.
EPA administrators, who will review the hearing officer's report, are not expected to make a final decision on the permit for at least 30 days.
The proposal, granted tentative approval last December by EPA officials, involves moving about 700,000 gallons of oil contaminated with large amounts of the deadly chemical polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from storage tanks in Alabama and burning them at sea on an incinerator ship. EPA officials have described the burning of the cancer-causing chemicals as a relatively safe experiment.
The hearing examiner's report is part of a process of obtaining permits for the chemical burn, which would be part of a decade-long effort by EPA to test seagoing incinerators as an alternative to land-based disposal for destruction of hazardous wastes.
Citizens along the Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware coast, as well as many state officials and members of Congress, protested the plan as dangerous. Besides the risks to human health, they argued, irreparable harm could be done to valuable fishing grounds and the seaside tourist industry if something went wrong.
Among those objecting to the plan is the environmental group Greenpeace, which collected 23,000 signatures on a protest petition. Frank McCall, the mayor of the seaside town of Wildwood Crest, N.J., said he had organized a fleet of more than 1,000 pleasure and fishing boats committed to blockading Philadelphia should the EPA allow the burning to take place.
The company scheduled to do the burning, Chemical Waste Management, which has been fined $17 million in 18 months for noncompliance with waste disposal and storage laws, also has been criticized by many opposing the operation. The Illinois company is under a court consent order to remove the wastes involved in the proposed experiment from tanks in Alabama.
EPA officials have said that the experiment would release less than 0.2 gallons of residue a day into the environment during the proposed 18-day test, an amount that "will not be distinguishable from levels of substance already found in the environment."
According to the proposal, the contaminated oil would be trucked 130 miles from tanks in Emelle, Ala., to Birmingham, and then taken 1,107 miles by railroad to Philadelphia. There it would be transferred to storage tanks and piped onto the incinerator ship Vulcanus II. The ship would sail 243 miles to the burn site.
The EPA hearing officer, Patrick M. Tobin, recommended in his report that the transportation risks be reduced by burning wastes from only the Philadelphia area. "I do not believe the concern over spills should be discounted," he wrote.
Tobin recommended that the agency consider using less toxic wastes at this stage of its research and that it review the legal and insurance issues involved. He also suggested that EPA coordinate its plans with state and local governments and do a better job of providing the public with accurate information on the proposed research.