DEEP-SIXING THE SIX-NINES

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Nov. 30, 1994

The Cat in the Hat appeared near Eureka last Friday morning, and his visit had nothing to do with the opening of the Christmas shopping season.

The Dr. Suess character greeted motorists from a billboard at the Williams Road entrance to Interstate 44. Members of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG) had scaled the sign and draped a banner, which also included the message: “We don’t like your burner plan, we don’t want it Carnahan.” The rhyme refers to Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan’s support of the proposed Times Beach dioxin incinerator.

By the time the Sunday St. Louis Post-Dispatch began thudding on lawns, the Cat had been shooed. In his place, at the bottom of the editorial page, was the newspaper’s latest endorsement of the plan to burn 100,000 cubic yards of carcinogenic dioxin-contaminated waste at Times Beach.

The editorial followed the release of an Environmental Protection Agency risk assessment, which estimates that resultant dioxin emissions from the proposed incinerator would, at most, cause only one more cancer death per million people. The Missouri Department of Health (MDOH) appears satisfied with the EPA’s projections. Gale Carlson a MDOH was not available for comment over the Thanksgiving holiday, and was in route to Times Beach at deadline on Monday. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) now stands poised to issue the requisite permit.

With Syntex — the company liable for the $161 million Superfund cleanup — steering the project into the fast lane, the Post-Dispatch appears to have jumped into the backseat like a cheerleader sandwiched between two linemen. The weight of the DNR and EPA and the respected reputation of the newspaper would seem, at first glance, to be enough to counter the terse objections of a cartoon cat flapping in the wind. That’s why it’s worth slowing down to take a better look at the details.

Detail number one: the six-nines boo-boo

“I’ve read a lot of things in the Post-Dispatch and heard a lot things from the government. … I don’t trust a damn thing they say, and I don’t think we should,” says Steve Taylor, a founder of TBAG. Taylor is critical of a Post Dispatch editorial last month, which carried the headline — The 99.9999 Percent Solution. According to federal guidelines, before dioxin can be incinerated the EPA must conduct a test burn of a surrogate material that achieves a destruction efficiency of 99.9999 percent. It is referred to as the six-nines rule. In it’s October editorial, the Post-Dispatch wrongly stated that: “If the surrogate burn is successful, then a small amount of dioxin would be burned, and that test too must meet the six nines standard.”

At a St. Louis County Council meeting on Oct. 20, Bob Field, the EPA project manager at Times Beach, gave a different view of the six-nines rule. What follows is a verbal volley between County Councilman Greg Quinn and Field:

Greg Quinn
“There was recently an editorial in the Post-Dispatch saying that the incinerator would not be permitted unless it could achieve the six-nines. … Is it true the DNR will not issue the final operating permit for the incinerator, if it fails to achieve the six-nines level?

Bob Field
” …Only on the surrogate. I believe that was a misprint or some other mistake that appeared in the Post-Dispatch. I’m familiar with the article.The mistake was that the editorial stated, as I read it, that the incinerator must issue six-nines DRE (destruction removal efficiency) for dioxin itself. That’s not true.

“So it could be less than the six-nines destruction for dioxin and the incinerator would still be able to operate?”

“The DRE for the dioxin will not be measured … because it is not pertinent to the safety of the unit. As I’ve explained before, what’s important from a safety stand point is how much dioxin is emitted from the stack. The regulatory requirement is to measure the DRE of the surrogate, and we’re going to comply with the regulation. …”

“After the surrogate test burn, will the level of dioxin incineration be measured to see if it is achieving the six-nines level?”

” Not for the purpose of seeing if it achieves six-nines. It will be measured to see if it is safe. …”

So the catch is the six-nines rule doesn’t apply to dioxin, but only its surrogate. “They don’t seem to be compelled to follow any standards,” says Taylor. “If you don’t have a standard that you are legally obligated to operate at, why should we allow it to proceed?”

Detail number two: saying no to BCD at Times Beach

In June, the EPA selected base catalyzed decomposition to remediate the Koppers Inc. Superfund site in Morrisville, N.C. The decision to use the alternative technology came even though the agency had previously chosen to incinerate the dioxin and another toxin. Fifteen tons of contaminated material were successfully treated by BCD during tests in 1993.
On July 21, E. Timothy Oppelt, the director of the EPA’s Risk Reduction Engineering Laboratory, sent a memorandum to Region VII of the EPA. The Times Beach cleanup is within Region VII’s jurisdiction.

“We believe given the characteristics of the soils at Times Beach, the BCD process will be able to remediate site soils,” wrote Oppelt.

The memo admits BCD technology has problems destroying plastic and rubber and that the dioxin-contaminated soil at Times Beach is stored in plastic bags. The thrust of the memo, nevertheless, is that BCD will work at Times Beach.

By September 20, however, Oppelt recanted. Further study found not only that non-soil materials would require incineration, but that soil differences, at the 27 other eastern Missouri dioxin sites, could pose problems. “The technology has not been proven at full scale and would likely have to undergo extensive testing prior to the acceptance by the agency at this site,” Oppelt wrote.
What had been an applicable technology two months earlier was suddenly trashed by the same official. In the memo, Oppelt also failed to mention the success of BCD in North Carolina.

“As you see from the EPA memos, there is something very fishy going on,” says Taylor “Looking at the situation, with the national trend away from incineration, with the decision to use BCD in other states, we have a hard time trusting their facts and figures. … The EPA and DNR have no credibility on this issue. We’d like to see a congressional investigation.”

Detail number three: Union Electric’s burning desire

A motorist on Interstate 44 need only travel a few exits past Times Beach to reach a pre-existing air pollution source that is capable of belching dioxin.

Since 1981, the Union Electric (UE) power plant at Labadie, Mo. has been burning polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a dioxin-related chemical. So far 4.5 million gallons of PCB-contaminated oil have vaporized up the stacks. PCBs were formerly used in electrical transformers before being banned. The UE plant falls outside the five-kilometer area of the Times Beach risk assessment but, the wind doesn’t necessarily heed the arbitrary boundaries of a federal study.

“There are no discernible concentrations of dioxin emitted by the stacks,” says UE spokeswoman Susan Gallagher. “That’s largely because at the temperatures the boilers burn at there is a full and complete destruction of PCBs and its byproducts.” But Mark Guy, a Gateway Green Alliance environmentalist who has knowledge of the plant, doubts that UE’s emissions record is quite so clean. He says that the problem lies not in the boiler, but in the air pollution device itself, electro-static precipitator. “Pat Costner, head chemist for Greenpeace, calls electro static precipitators dioxin creators, says Guy. “The pollution control system for boiler four — the one that burns the PCB material — is not discernibly different than the pollution control devices on the boilers that do not burn PCB material.”

Earlier this year, the EPA reaffirmed the health dangers posed by dioxin. The list includes not only cancer, but maladies of the immune and reproductive systems. According to the EPA’s own study, “evidence suggests concern for the impact of these (dioxin-related) chemicals on humans at or near current background levels. In other words, the general population already may be overexposed. Now the same agency has declared that the Times Beach dioxin incinerator will raise the chances of death by only one-in-a-million.

The Cat in the Hat would most likely appreciate the audacity of such a fanciful claim, but Taylor of TBAG isn’t making any bets based on those odds. ” I guess it’s not hard to come up with a risk assessment that says this incinerator is alright — when you do your calculations based on everything working perfectly.”

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