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Trashes to ashes, all fall down.

Trashes to ashes, all fall down

Two lawsuits filed las week by environmental groups may spur resolution of a longstanding dispute over the disposal of ash from municipal trash incinerators. The suits, filed by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Washington, D.C., and the Chicago-based Citizens for a Better Environment, claim that toxic ash from energy-producing municipal incinerators, or resource recovery plants, is not being disposed of in accordance with relevant hazardous waste regulations. At issue is a disputed interpretation of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which defines hazardous wastes and how they are to be disposed.

The suits are significant because municipalities are becoming increasingly reliant upon resource recovery incinerators for trash disposal. Such facilities generate moderate amounts of electricity by burning household garbage. Since the advent of new technologies for minimizing air pollution, more than 100 such incinerators have gone on line in U.S. cities, and thousands more are on the drawing boards. If the court rules that the ash from these plants must be disposed of as a hazardous waste, the cost of operating the incineration facilities will increase substantially.

"In our haste to adopt incineration as a panacea for the seiours health threats that have resulted from landfilling trash, we can't afford to repeat the same mistakes by improperly managing the ash, which must also be landfilled," says Richard A. Denison of the EDF. Test data compiled by the EDF shows that landfilled ash from municipal incinerators typically contains toxic metals such as lead and cadmium in concentrations considered hazardous by the EPA. The lawsuit single out resource recovery plants in Chicago and Peekskill, N.Y.

According to Wheelabrator Environmental Systems, the nation's largest municipal incinerator company and owner of the Peekskill plant, the management and disposal of its ash residues "are in strict compliance with applicable state and federal requirements." The Hampton, N.H.-based company contends that toxic ash from municipal waste incinerators is exempt from RCRA disposal regulations. The EDF says this is "wishful thinking."

In fact, both Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been struggling to clarify how RCRA should apply to municipal facilities. The issue is complicated because it involves both statutory and regulatory provisions that use slightly different language. Moreover, according to Robin Woods, a spokesperson for the EPA, the agency is considering changing its hazardous disposal regulations. But for now, she says, "We do have policy in effect that says if the ash tests hazardous ... then it must go to a hazardous waste facility."

Also at issue is the reliability of the test commonly used to determine the toxcitiy of incinerator ash. The so-called Elution Procedure Toxicity Test, currently accepted by the EPA, is meant to mimic landfill conditions to determine the rates at which metals and pesticides leach into groundwater. Industry representatives claim the test overestimates leach rates. Environmentalists say the test is too conservative, noting that it doesn't even attempt to measure many of the toxic organic solvents that have in recent years been found in drinking water (SN: 1/16/88, p.39).

In related news, the Epa last week said it would stop work on its design of guidelines for the incineration of toxic wastes at sea. The announcement was considered a major victory for environmentalists and members of Congress who had opposed the EPA's proposed plan to burn hazardous wastes on giant incinerator ships off U.S. coasts.
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Title Annotation:law suits on proper disposal of ash from municipal incinerators
Author:Weiss, R.
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 6, 1988
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