Who would want to do that? Well a company in Port Arthur, Texas, is currently seeking an exemption from federal law to do just that.
If you're not familiar with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), they are a compound once manufactured in the U.S. to insulate electricity transformers, among many other uses. In 1976, after realizing how nasty these things are, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, which made it illegal to manufacture any more PCBs in the U.S. - or to import them. Yet despite that law, Veolia Environmental Services is asking the EPA to let it ignore the law and import more than 20,000 tons of PCBs from Mexico for incineration.And let's talk about just how nasty PCBs are. Some are implicated as carcinogens. PCBs and breakdown products may suppress your immune system, can impair your reproductive system; and they accumulate and linger in the body. Pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable and sensitive populations to harm from exposure to PCBs.
Veolia ES already incinerates all sorts of hazardous things in Port Arthur - including chemical weapons the Army no longer needs (and under controversial arrangements, as well). A Gulf Coast town, Port Arthur is home to many chemical plants, Superfund sites and oil refineries. Local resident Hilton Kelly said because the town is also home to many low-income families, Veolia sees it as the path of least resistance. It is an environmental justice issue. "They're taking advantage of this community," said Kelly.
Kelly said the impacts of all the industry on Port Arthur's residents are clear. "We've had a large number of people who have died from cancer," he explained. "We've also got a disproportionate number with kidney disease, and I think there is a direct correlation with these diseases and the types of chemicals around here."
Kelly's community group Community In-power Development Association of Port Arthur (CIDA) is working with residents and a coalition of local organizations, including the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, to convince the EPA to not allow Veolia ES an exemption from the Toxic Substances Control Act. The coalition says that if this company is allowed to receive an exemption of this manner, it will open the floodgates.
"(Veolia) is asking to be exempt from a federal law," said Kelly. "If you or I asked to be exempt, people'd look at us like we were crazy. And we're not just talking about this violating federal law, but we're also saying 'Why bring it to Port Arthur?' As if we don't have enough toxic waste to deal with at this time. How much is enough?"
This isn't a fight that lacks a suitable alternative either: there are safer ways to dispose of PCBs.
"There is a a loophole that says if there is no other alternative beside burning the PCBs in the U.S., a company can import them if they petition the EPA and the EPA approves it," said Neil Carman, the clean air program director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. "We are pointing out to the EPA that there are alternatives. The non-incinerative manner is safer, portable, and you can take it all over the world. The EPA has been doing that since 1990s - approving nonincinerative ways since them."
Among the reasons cited to oppose the Veolia exemption, the coalition also cites:
- Importing PCBs into the U.S. poses a serious transportation hazard to several million people living in populated urban areas along a 460-mile highway route from the border through Houston to Port Arthur.
- Incinerating PCBs still results in some unburned PCBs.
- Incinerating PCBs creates new toxic chemicals such as dioxins and dibenzofurans, including chlorinated chemicals more toxic than PCBs.
- PCBs bioaccumulate in the food chain, spanning from aquatic to agricultural food sources - and then into humans.
- PCBs are very persistent, sometimes lasting for decades, maybe even 100 years or more. Even the EPA calls them "Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxic Substances."
- The Veolia Port Arthur toxic waste incinerator has not installed either a PCB or dioxin "stack continuous emissions monitoring system" to measure the emissions of unburned PCB's and dioxins being released from its smokestack.
Carman added that PCBs also drift around the planet via the global distillation effect. "Even animals in the Arctic are loaded with this stuff, as is the snow and ice in polar regions. Incinerating it is just insane and that's why there's been a group of us going after the EPA to have alternative nonincineration technologies."
Coming up on June 19 is an EPA hearing on the issue, where Kelly said the coalition will be voicing its concerns.
Kelly also encouraged those who want to help to write letters to Port Arthur's mayor and city council, as well as to the EPA office in Dallas, Texas.
"We feel it's time for this to stop, said Kelly. "Somebody has to be a voice in this community so they can see we're standing up to this."
Image credit::C. Middleton