Taking in the Trash
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  Continued From Previous Page

The Special Waste Trade

    George Ball-Llovera stands by as a refuse truck leaves the energy plant.
(By Gerald Martineau – The Washington Post)
From confidential documents to 20 tons of women's lingerie, many kinds of benign industrial waste have flowed to the two Northern Virginia plants.

But the industrial waste approved for burning at Fairfax also has included 20 tons or more each of silicone, leftover drugs, residue from sand blasting, pesticides, oily debris, dye, animal serums, paints, paint fillers and toner cartridges, Fairfax records show. The waste has come from 20 states, the District and Puerto Rico.

The state permits that control the Fairfax and Alexandria incinerators are nearly silent on how imported industrial wastes should be processed – a holdover from the days when it was not foreseen the incinerators would ever import large amounts of such materials.

For a while, Ogden sought advance state approval to burn each load of industrial waste before accepting the shipments at either the Fairfax or Alexandria incinerator. The company later asked the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to simplify the process by giving "categorical preapproval" for the burning of "discarded chemicals," a request granted in December 1994.

The local governments take very different approaches to supervising the industrial waste.

Alexandria and Arlington officials, for example, concerned about possible public outcry and the potential impact on air quality, prohibit burning pesticides and have tighter overall restrictions than Fairfax does on what it will accept at their incinerator.

With pesticides, "the environmental experts felt it was something that would be acceptable," said Harn, the Arlington County environmental planning coordinator. "But [in Alexandria and Arlington], we just weren't comfortable. The plant is close to a residential area, and we want to be cautious." Because of the policy, Alexandria rejected a request by Ogden to burn 20 tons of a pesticide known as Bug-B-Gone in May 1997.

While Alexandria has stricter guidelines on what it will accept at its plant, Fairfax has a procedure in place to verify what kind of industrial waste is burned.

Alexandria and Arlington officials have no independent record of the sorts of industrial waste incinerated during the last four years and rely on Ogden to ensure nothing improper goes into the furnaces..

Harn, the county environmental officer, said he believes the risk "is fairly minimal that they would do something like that," referring to the possibility an unapproved waste might be burned.

Fairfax requires county engineers to review each request to dispose of industrial waste in advance to try to guarantee that processing it will not contaminate the air, leftover ash or threaten workers. In January, for example, the county rejected a request to burn 20 tons of waste sludge because it had a high level of lead and other heavy metals.

"There is nothing that goes in there that does not have our approval," said Jeffrey M. Smithberger, deputy director of Fairfax County's solid waste division.

Despite the safeguards, both plants in the last 13 months have had trouble with their handling of special wastes.

In September 1997, truck drivers and plant workers at the Alexandria plant reported burning eyes, noses and throats, according to state records. Plant staff members reviewed recent waste deliveries and began to question an 11,000-pound shipment from Chicago that had just been burned. The load had been sent by the hazardous waste firm Clean Harbors Environmental Services Inc., the records show.

After plant staff members pressed the company, the firm notified Ogden that mixed within its load of "special waste" had been 1,600 pounds of a pesticide known as Hyamine 1622.

Ogden says it had no way of knowing the pesticide, which is regulated by the federal government and which the plant would have needed state permission to burn, was part of the load. But it agreed that its Alexandria staff needed to be retrained in how to inspect loads.

"We deeply regret having processed materials without state approval and are working to ensure it does not happen again," the company said in a letter explaining the incident to state regulators.

"We should not have burned it that day," Ogden spokesman Steve Yianakopolos said.

This past May, state inspectors visiting the Fairfax incinerator found seven, 55-gallon drums shipped by National Starch and Chemical Co. of Bridgewater, N.J. The barrel labels indicated that they contained a chemical rated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as hazardous.

"We saw no evidence indicating that [Ogden]had obtained a certificate from the generator that the waste was not hazardous before accepting the material," Gumbita wrote to Ogden in June. "Nor was there evidence that the facility was even aware that the material was being stored at their facility."

Ogden officials responded that they still had not completed their final check on the barrels, which would have been done before they were burned. But they acknowledged that the waste had slipped by them when it was unloaded. As they'd done in Alexandria, they promised state officials staff would get "refresher training."

"There was no intent to circumvent state regulations or approvals," the letter from Ogden said.

Fairfax County Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) said she intends to ask county officials for more information on the industrial waste trade.

"I want to know if there are guarantees on what can and cannot be taken, how it is going to be hauled to the plant and what the potential costs and benefits are to everyone," she said. "We need to give this a little scrutiny."

Worries About Air and Ash

Once trash is burned in the incinerators and electrical power is generated, the leftovers are ash and exhaust.

Virginia requires routine monitoring of air emissions from the Northern Virginia incinerators. Those tests have turned up occasional problems.

In Alexandria during the last four years, there have been sporadic instances of emissions exceeding a state standard for "opacity," which means the air is not as clear or as clean as it should be when it leaves the plant.

In Fairfax, the plant exceeded limits on opacity and discharges of sulfur dioxide, an air pollutant.

At both plants, Ogden officials said the occasional emissions violations were related to brief equipment breakdowns and did not suggest inherent risks in the industrial waste trade. The state makes allowances for mechanical failures and Jack Schubert, air program compliance coordinator for Virginia, said they are generally satisfied with the plants' performances.

A more pressing concern for the Department of Environmental Quality has been the 330,000 tons a year total of ash the two Northern Virginia incinerators produce and the possibility that industrial waste might leave hazardous residues in the ash that could then seep into groundwater. To dispose of the ash, the plants bury it at a landfill off Interstate 95 in Fairfax.

Neither facility has tested its ash for about four years – the period when they built up their industrial waste business – to determine whether it contains chemical residues or heavy metals that would render it hazardous. If the ash was found to be hazardous, the city would be required to dispose of it at a special, and more expensive, hazardous-waste landfill.

For two years, the regional office of the Department of Environmental Quality has requested that the Fairfax and Alexandria plants test their ash regularly, a request that Ogden and the local governments argue is unnecessary and will drive up costs.

The state could compel better ash testing, but it would require action from Richmond, which environmental officials in the regional office say may be slow in coming.

"It is a very long process," Gumbita said. "I hope every day we can get it done. But it is going to take a while."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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