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Incineration on the high seas.

Incineration on the high seas

The Environmental Protection Agency's plan to allow commercial waste haulers to burn polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxin and other liquid hazardous wastes on special incinerator ships in the Gulf of Mexico has met with fierce opposition from state officials in Texas, Louisiana and Alabama. The attorneys general of these states say they will sue EPA if it goes ahead with the plan. And the issue heated up further last week as the Senate conducted hearings on the proposal.

The Senate is considering a bill introduced by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) calling for a three-year moratorium on ocean incineration until the technology has been studied in more detail. In the hearing, before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, William F. Brown, director of marine affairs for Chemical Waste Management of Oak Brook, Ill., one of the three companies awaiting EPA's final approval of ocean incineration, testified that "the intensely hot temperatures of incineration break down toxic waste completely into nontoxic by-products.' The company also claims the Gulf of Mexico already receives "100 to 1,000 times more PCBs from the atmosphere' than it would from ocean incineration. Representatives from SeaBurn, Inc., of Greenwich, Conn., and At-Sea Incineration of Elizabeth, N.J., also testified.

Recently passed, more stringent federal regulations restricting the disposal of hazardous wastes in landfills and wells are expected to increase the amount of wastes requiring incineration by 1.7 million metric tons per year in the "near term,' according to EPA. The United States will need either 33 incinerator ships or an additional 82 land-based incinerators to meet this demand, according to Office of Technology Assessment spokesperson William D. Barnard.

Operating 170 miles from shore, incinerator ships would burn toxic wastes without the smokestack scrubbers required on land, but EPA says it would require a destruction efficiency of 99.9999 percent for PCBs and dioxins and 99.99 percent for other wastes. And an accident at sea involving such a ship, the agency estimates, could not occur more than once every 1,200 years.

Critics claim, however, that EPA has been at best inconsistent in its handling of Chemical Waste Management's bid to incinerate. The company was charged by EPA with burning dioxin-contaminated waste without authorization during a test at sea three years ago. But EPA has since dropped the charge, prompting the State of Alabama recently to initiate a criminal investigation of EPA. On April 1 EPA issued two conflicting reports on the safety of ocean incineration. While one proclaimed that ocean incineration was an "environmentally sound' waste disposal option, the other, issued by EPA's Science Advisory Board, concluded that EPA's scientific approach to this issue has been "incomplete.'

Texas Gov. Mark White believes that EPA must show that an accident at sea could be cleaned up, that the effects of a spill would be reversible and that there would be sufficient liability protection to cover the full impact of an accident at sea. "If it's so safe,' he charged at the hearing, "why do they want to go 170 miles out to sea to incinerate?
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Title Annotation:controversy over burning hazardous waste on incinerator ships
Author:Mathewson, Judith
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 29, 1985
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