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EPA passes new PCB regulations.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new regulations last week that it said were intended to protect the public from potential health risks posed by fires involving electrical transformers that had polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in their cooling systems. The new rules will require landlords and utilities that own certain types of PCB-cooled transformers in commercial buildings such as hospitals, shopping centers and office buildings to remove the equipment by 1990. Other types of PCB-cooled transformers, the agency said, will not have to be removed, but they will require improvements.

The EPA action follows several fires, including one in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1981, and one in san Francisco in 1983, which ruptured transformers, spilling and partially burning the enclosed PCBs. Soot samples from both fires showed that the PCBs--which have been shown to cause tumors in animals--had turned into more lethal by-products, including dioxins.

The EPA estimates that 39,000 of the 77,000 transformers in commercial buildings are owned by utilities. Some utility companies claim that EPA's estimate that compliance with the new rules will cost U.S. businesses only $600 million is unrealistic.

"We've voluntarily replaced 400 transformers within the last 2 to 3 years," says Tim Schulte, a spokesperson for the Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison Co., "but we still have another 2,000 that must be either removed or improved, and it's going to cost us $200 million."

But according to Denise Keehner, chief of the regulations branch in EPA's Office of Pesticides and Toxic Substances, the $600 million price tag is partially offset by the projected $200 million that utilities and businesses will save in reduced fire clean up costs.

Until now, EPA had not judged PCB-cooled transformers to present any "unreasonable risk" to humans or the environment, because the PCBs were "totally enclosed" within the cooling systems. Since 1978, however, EPA has prohibited all other uses of PCBs. But that action has had little effect, according to some environmentalists, who estimate that transformers accounted for more than 90 percent of all PCB use. Moreover, they fear that the new regulations still may not be far-reaching enough. "The question is whether these regulations will affect a large enough percentage of the country's PCBs to satisfy us that we needn't go back to court," says Robert A. Michaels, a toxicologis with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City, which has sued EPA on the grounds that the 1978 regulations were inadequate.
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Author:Mathewson, Judith
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 13, 1985
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