The government is to propose Friday that all old electrical transformers containing the deadly chemical PCBs be removed from food production and feed facilities nationwide at the owners' expense.
Untold thousands of the outdated transformers and hundreds of thousands of electric capacitors are thought to be either in use or stored around the country, harboring the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) like deadly traps waiting to be sprung.
In regulations scheduled for Friday publication in the Federal Register, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture will order that all those old parts be turned in to the government.
The proposed regulations, which would go into effect a year after becoming final, would cover fertilizer and pesticide processing and manufacturing facilities, food and feed production, slaughterhouses and other food-processing operatons under the FDA's food safety and quality service jurisdiction.
Industries affected will be given 90 days in which to comment.
PCBs spilled from a damaged, forgotten transformer in a storage shed in Billings, Mont., last summer and got into animal feed and human foods that went to 17 states. Assistant Agriculature Secretary Carol Tucker Foreman told a House hearing last September that the incident was quickly detected, but only by chance, and that, even so, 400,000 pounds of poultry, 1,000 pounds of pork and 73,000 pounds egg products had to be taken off the market.
The agencies decided in the wake of that incident to get rid of the transformers still in use around food plants, according to Steven D. Jellinek, assistant administrator for pesticides and toxic substances at EPA.
PCBs are suspected cancer -- causing chemicals that have been linked to skin and liver disease, bone problems and other ailments. They were banned from new uses in 1977, but had been used for years as lubricant and high-temperature coolant equipment. The Enviromental Defense Fund has estimated there are still 275 million gallions of PCBs in transformers currently in use.
"PCBs are very hazardous," said Jellinek, in confirming the impending announcement. "They are everywhere, they accumulate in human tissue and they don't degrade in the environment." They are so persistent, in fact, that the only known way to get rid of them is by incineration at high temperatures. No PCB incinerators exist.
Under the new requirements, storage and use of equipment containing oils with more than 50 parts per million of PCBs will be prohibited. Anyone using such equipment now or storing it will have to get it to an approved landfill or to a storage facility for eventual incineration, Jellinek said.
Jellinek said that by the time the rules go into effect, EPA will have at least one and possibly two or more PCB incerators available to dispose of the material.
Existing regulations promulgated two years ago govern proper storage and transportation of PCB-related material and should cover the possibility of accidents while the regulations are being obeyed, Jellinek said."Most of the spills we've had so far, like the one in Montana, involved improper storage or transport," he said.
An Agriculture Department official estimated that it would cost owners of PCB -- containing electrical equipment 10 to 15 percent more than the original cost to replace the devices. The proposal does not offer any kind of financial help for the task. "The incentive is not to have a disaster like the one in Montana," he said.
Panalties for violation of the new rules are set under the Toxic Substamce Control Act at $25,000 per day per violation. Jellinek said inspectors of all three agencies would participate in enforcing the new rules.