Tag Archives: hazardous waste landfills

The Toxic Shadow of Abandoned Oil Infrastructure

Wearing blue hard hats, white hazmat suits and respirator masks, workers carted away bags of debris on a recent morning from a sprawling and now-defunct oil refinery once operated by Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES). Other laborers ripped asbestos from the guts of an old boiler house, part of a massive demolition and redevelopment of the plant, which closed in 2019 after a series of explosions at the facility.

Plans call for the nearly 1,400-acre site to be transformed into a new commercial hub with warehousing and offices. All it will take is a decade, hundreds of millions of dollars, and confronting 150 years’ worth of industrial pollution, including buried rail cars and a poisonous stew of waste fuels poured onto the ground. A U.S. refinery cleanup of this size and scope has no known precedent, remediation experts said. It’s a glimpse of what lies ahead if the United States hopes to wean itself off fossil fuels and clean up the toxic legacy of oil, gas and coal.

President Joe Biden wants to bring the United States to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to fight climate change through a shift to clean-energy technologies, while reducing pollution in low-income and minority neighborhoods near industrial facilities. It’s a transition fraught with challenges. Among the biggest is what to do with the detritus left behind. The old PES plant is just one of approximately 135 oil refineries nationwide, to say nothing of the country’s countless gas stations, pipelines, storage hubs, drill pads and other graying energy infrastructure.

In Philadelphia, a private-sector company is taking the lead. Hilco Redevelopment Partners, a real estate firm that specializes in renovating old industrial properties, bought the PES refinery out of bankruptcy for $225.5 million in June…The full extent of the pollution won’t be understood for years. Also uncertain is the ability of the refinery’s previous owners to pay their share of the cleanup. The facility has had multiple owners over its lifetime and responsibility has been divided between them through business agreements and legal settlements.
Oil refining at the Philadelphia site began in 1870, 100 years before the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Gasoline, once a worthless byproduct of heating oil, was routinely dumped by the refinery into the soil, according to historians and researchers. Leaks and accidents spewed more toxins. The June 2019 blasts alone released 676,000 pounds of hydrocarbons, PES said at the time. The Philadelphia site is not unique. About half of America’s 450,000 polluted former industrial and commercial sites are contaminated with petroleum, according to the EPA.

Cleanup in Philadelphia will be painstaking. After asbestos abatement comes the demolition and removal of 3,000 tanks and vessels, along with more than 100 buildings and other infrastructure, the company said. Then comes the ground itself. Hilco’s Perez said dirt quality varies widely on the site and will have to be handled differently depending on contamination levels. Clearing toxins like lead must be done with chemical rinses or other technologies…The site also has polluted groundwater and giant benzene pools lurking underneath, according to environmental reports Sunoco filed over the years with the federal and state governments.

Excerpts from Laila Kearney, 150 years of spills: Philadelphia refinery cleanup highlights toxic legacy of fossil fuels, Reuters, Feb. 16, 2021
 

Electronic Waste: The Death of Your Phone and the Duty to Resuscitate It

E-waste is the fastest-growing element of the world’s domestic waste stream, according to a 2017 report by the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor. Some 50m metric tonnes will be produced annually in 2020 — about 7kg for every person in the world. Just 20 per cent will be collected and recycled.  The rest is undocumented, meaning it likely ends up in landfill, incinerated, traded illegally or processed in a substandard way. That means hazardous substances spilling into the environment, poisoning the ground and people living nearby.

Heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium — commonly found in LCD screens,  refrigerators and air-conditioning units — as well as chemicals such as CFCs and flame retardants  found in plastics can contaminate soil, pollute water and enter the food chain.  Research last year by Basel Action Network, an NGO, linked toxic e-waste shipped from Europe to  contaminated chicken eggs in Agbogbloshie — a Ghanaian scrapyard where 80,000 residents subsist by retrieving metals from electrical waste. Eating just one egg from a hen foraging in the scrapyard would exceed the European Food Safety Authority’s tolerable daily intake for chlorinated dioxins 220-fold.

Some appliances are more likely to be recycled than others. The recycling rate for big appliances, such as fridges and cookers, is about 80 per cent. That is because they are harder to dispose of and eventually get picked up, even when they are dumped by the kerb. Of small appliances, however,  barely one in five makes it to the recycling centre.  Across the world, governments are trying different ways to reduce e-waste and limit the amount that ends up in landfill.

For some time, EU countries have operated a one-for-one take-back system — which means that distributors need to take back, for free, an older version of any equipment they sell you. But since the rapid rise of online retailers, this has been harder to implement

In the end, all e-waste needs to be reduced to core metals. “It’s a bit like a mining activity.” In certain recycling  plants robots have been programmed to dismantle flatscreen TVs, extracting  precious metals such as cobalt or lithium, whose deposits are limited and increasingly valuable.  “One of the hardest things about recycling is that you are not sure how [the manufacturers] made  it.”   Companies are encouraged  to include this information on their devices. It could be a  file with instructions readable by robots that could then proceed with the dismantling, making the process “easier, cheaper and more circular”. However, manufacturers have so far kept a close guard on the design of their products.

Many pressure groups and lawmakers have concluded that improving recycling rates will not be  sufficient to tackle the global e-waste problem. Increasingly, they are advocating for the right to repair. In October 2019, the EU adopted a package of design measures to make household appliances more repairable.  Starting from March 2021, manufacturers selling certain household appliances will have to ensure  that spare parts are available for a number of years after their product has launched; that their  items can be easily disassembled (and so use screws not glue); and that they provide access to  technical information to repair professionals.

The rules cover appliances including refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers and televisions.  But they do not extend to IT equipment such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones.  “The road to a new product is very easy, and the road to a successful repair very difficult,” says  Martine Postma, founder and director of Repair Café International Foundation, which celebrated  its 10th anniversary last year. Since its first repair event in Amsterdam in 2009, the organisation  has grown to nearly 2,000 repair groups in 35 countries around the world.  Now, it wants to collect more data about electronic gadgets, to see if it can plot “weak points” in  design that could help manufacturers make them more repairable.

Excerpts from Aleksandra Wisniewska, What happens to your old laptop? The growing problem of e-waste, http://wiki.ban.org, Jan. 10, 2020

Nuclear Waste and Environmental Justice

After California regulators refused to allow the U.S. Air Force to label residue from radioactive aircraft instruments as “naturally occurring” – declaring it unsuitable for a Bakersfield-area dump – the military turned to Idaho with the same story.  There, military officials met with success. The Air Force is now sending radioactive waste from Sacramento County’s McClellan Air Force Base to a Grand View, Idaho, hazardous waste landfill.

This solution involved a bit of legal semantics rejected in California despite 10 months of Air Force lobbying: The military claimed radium dust left over from glow-in-the-dark aircraft instruments actually was naturally occurring, putting it the same relatively lax regulatory category as mine tailings, according to government memos obtained by California Watch through a public records request.  Larry Morgan, a health physicist with the California Department of Public Health, disagreed with that characterization. Radioactive paint does not “meet the definition” of naturally occurring waste, he wrote in a September 2011 memo.

The Idaho facility’s permit allows it to accept materials defined as natural without notifying state regulators, leaving the state’s hazardous waste manager in the dark.  “I’m not familiar with this particular waste stream. I intend to find out now that you’ve contacted me,” Robert Bullock, hazardous waste permits manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said during an October interview.  The redefinition of the waste as natural might not even have been necessary, given Idaho’s different standards for waste containing trace amounts of radium.

Days after the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality told California Watch that the agency was unaware of the Air Force waste, an official went out to inspect the landfill. Interviewed after that visit, engineer Dennis Meier said the dumping was legal because of the low concentration of radium in the soil, despite the source.  “It’s not waste that has to go to a radioactive waste facility,” he said. “The concentration is way below what we would accept.”

Nonetheless,California health officials and environmental activists accused the Air Force of bending the truth to get its way.  “Illuminated instrument dials do not naturally occur,” said Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz who leads the environmental group Committee to Bridge the Gap. “I can’t dig into the soil and discover naturally occurring radium instrument dials.”

The radioactive dirt in question hails from the former McClellan Air Force Base northeast of Sacramento,now a commercial development site.“At least 24 sites” on the base “all have low levels of radium mixed in with the soil, and there are many thousands of cubic yards” of contaminated soil, according to Philip Mook, Western region senior representative for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which is in charge of cleanups at Air Force installations. “A little bit of radium goes a long way.”  The Air Force has sent 22,000 tons of radioactive dirt from McClellan out of state so far, according to Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, if significant radium is inhaled or ingested, it can increase the risk of diseases such as lymphoma, bone cancer and leukemia. While the concentrations in the McClellan soil are low, they are above limits the federal government has set to protect human health.  Before these medical effects became evident, aircraft dials and gauges were painted with glowing radium so pilots could see them better at night. Air Force officials speculate that the radium became dispersed in the soil at McClellan “probably in cleanup water, like mop water or solvents that were used to clean the equipment or to clean up spills of radium,” Mook said. Although radium paint wasn’t used on the base after the 1950s, items contaminated with it remained…

Stephen Woods, chief of the California Department of Public Health’s Division of Food, Drug and Radiation Safety, argued in a Nov. 4, 2011, letter that the dirt should be sent to “a licensed low-level radioactive waste disposal facility.” The Idaho facility where the soil is now going does not meet that criteria. Neither do any California waste disposal facilities.  That’s partly because of vocal opposition from local Kern County residents and environmental groups.  “Hazardous waste landfills in low-income communities of color in California aren’t the right places for” nuclear waste, said Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, which for almost two decades has fought to limit the Buttonwillow landfill’s expansion and impact on local residents.

But in the past, the landfill has accepted nuclear waste. In 1998 and 1999, the Army Corps of Engineers sent residue from the Manhattan Project, the World War II-era research and development program that produced atomic bombs dropped in Japan, to the landfill.  The move outraged civilian officials.  Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer testified before a Senate committee on July 25, 2000: “When I learned that the Corps had disposed of 2,200 tons of radioactive waste at an unlicensed hazardous waste facility in Buttonwillow, California, I was shocked. The facility sits atop aquifers that supply water to the Central Valley of California.”  Since the Manhattan Project controversy, the facility’s permit has been tightened. Yet the landfill’s current permit states that it may accept naturally occurring radioactive materials at low concentrations….

US Ecology, which operates the hazardous waste landfill in Grand View, Idaho, seemed to accept the terminology.  Steve Welling, senior vice president of sales and marketing for US Ecology, said in an interview that “state law and our permits” allowed the facility to accept the waste that the Air Force had characterized as naturally occurring.

Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, Air Force Ships Calif. Radioactive Waste To Idaho Landfill, NBC, Nov. 9, 2012