Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#341 - Incineration: New Evidence Of Danger, 09-Jun-1993

EPA's reform of incineration rules, announced on the front page of the
NEW YORK TIMES May 18, may have even less substance than we first
reported (RHWN #338). EPA's May 18th announcement contained several
features, but for incinerator fighters the two main ones are:

First, a moratorium on new hazardous waste incinerators;

Second, a promise of new scrutiny for existing machines that began the
permitting process as early as 1984 but have never received a full
operating permit.

Clarification of the Announced Moratorium

We reported May 20 that EPA's "moratorium" on new hazardous waste
incinerators does not affect new incinerators that may be proposed in
46 states. These 46 have been authorized by EPA to operate the RCRA
[Resource Recovery and Conservation Act] programs which issue licenses
(called permits) to incinerators and other waste disposal facilities.
RCRA-authorized states are free to continue issuing licenses to new
hazardous waste incinerators, if they choose to.

It is true that EPA does retain ultimate authority over every RCRA
facility, including all incinerators. The RCRA regulations say very
clearly that the EPA administrator can deny, amend, or cancel any RCRA
permit at any time to protect public health and safety.[1]

However, based on recent history, it seems unlikely that EPA chief
Carol Browner would exercise this authority to prevent the operation of
a new hazardous waste incinerator after a state has allowed such a
machine to be built. Ms. Browner was specifically asked to exercise
such authority in at least one case (the WTI incinerator in East
Liverpool, Ohio), and she has refused.

In the case of WTI, there were several compelling reasons that EPA
could have used to deny WTI a permit for commercial operation. The East
Liverpool incinerator failed two parts of its test burn--it failed to
destroy carbon tetrachloride (a known human carcinogen) with the
required 99.99 percent efficiency, and it emitted more than three times
as much mercury as is allowable into the local community during the
test burn. Despite these documented failures, EPA has allowed WTI to
begin commercial operation.

Dioxin emissions from WTI provide another reasonable basis upon which
WTI's permit could be denied or revoked. The dioxin danger from WTI was
scrutinized in a federal court in Ohio during February, 1993. Federal
judge Ann Aldrich concluded, in her written opinion March 5, 1993, that
"...[T]his Court finds it clear that the operation of the WTI facility
during the post trial burn period clearly may cause imminent and
substantial endangerment to health and the environment. It is patently
unsafe to subject the population exposed to the facility's emissions to
the risks involved in incineration while the US EPA determines what the
risk is and what risk is acceptable."

Despite Judge Aldrich's conclusion that commercial operation of WTI is
"patently unsafe," EPA refuses to restrict WTI's operations. Why? Vice-
President Al Gore explained to a town meeting in Omaha, Nebraska March
10th that there were two reasons: because the Bush administration had
tied the Clinton administration's hands by issuing WTI's first permit,
and because WTI had "invested tens of millions of dollars."[2] The part
about the Clinton administration's hands being tied was simply not
true, as a matter of law. The part about WTI having gained the right to
operate a dangerous machine because they had invested a lot of money
building it was surprising not for its logic but for its candor.

Since EPA's May 18th "moratorium" on incinerators will allow states to
issue permits to build new incinerators, heavy investments in new
incinerators will likely force EPA to rubber stamp commercial operating
licenses, just as happened at WTI.

Stricter Control of BIFs--But When?

EPA's May 18th announcement covered 184 hazardous waste incinerators.

Even more importantly, the announcement also affected 171 so-called
BIFs (boilers and industrial furnaces), including 34 cement kilns that
burn hazardous waste as fuel for making cement.

Together, these incinerators and BIFs burn 5 million tons of hazardous
waste each year.

The main question is whether BIFs (boilers and industrial furnaces,
including cement kilns) will be brought under stricter controls soon.
Of the 171 BIFs operating today, none has a final RCRA permit; all are
operating under "interim status."

In announcing the imposition of new, stricter controls on existing
BIFs, EPA chief Carol Browner said the new BIF standards were needed to
"immediately strengthen the environmental safeguards" of these

However, the DAILY ENVIRONMENT REPORT [DER], a Washington insider's
newsletter, on May 20 published interviews with EPA officials putting
the agency's new incineration policy into perspective:[3]

** State officials, and EPA regional offices, have been given up to 3
years to develop a process that would bring BIFs under new, stricter
controls. Agency officials told DER that new, stricter incinerator
rules will be proposed in 18 months to 2 years. After regulations are
proposed, they will be subject to comment and public hearing, further
study and revision by EPA, and eventually final issuance.

** States and EPA regional offices will have 12 months before they must
begin to review interim permits for 34 cement kilns that now burn
hazardous waste on a commercial basis.

** Fred Chanania, an EPA official in Washington, told DER that EPA
would "not by any stretch of the imagination" be ready to issue final
BIF permits in the next 18 months.

In sum, President Clinton's first term may well have ended before
today's BIFs are brought under stricter control.

And stricter control is clearly needed now.

An official EPA summary of a meeting held December 7, 1992, between
four EPA officials and 19 BIF operators says, "We are finding
violations of basic, long-standing, fundamental requirements of the
RCRA program. Many of the requirements we are discussing have been in
place for 12 years...."[4]

The summary goes on to describe the following kinds of violations by

Sixty-two percent of BIFs have violated feed-rate regulations
(measuring, controlling and documenting the rate at which hazardous
wastes are fed into BIFs).

Fifty-six percent of BIFs have violated the requirements for analyzing
wastes (to find out what is in them before they are fed into the

The summary provides evidence of many other violations of law and
regulations by BIFs. The BIF record of compliance, as revealed in this
document, is nothing short of scandalous.

Furthermore, there is growing evidence that operation of incinerators
and BIFs is taking a toll on human health. Last month in Atlanta,
Georgia, at the International Congress on the Health Effects of
Hazardous Waste, five separate studies linked various illnesses to
exposure to hazardous waste incinerators:[5]

No. 1: Charles E. Feigley at University of South Carolina in Columbia
interviewed a randon sample of 894 residents, 508 of whom lived
downwind of a commercial hazardous waste incinerator, and 386 of whom
lived upwind. Downwind residents reported a 50 to 100 percent greater
prevalence of coughing, phlegm, wheezing, sore throat and eye
irritation, compared to upwinders. Even after adjusting for age, and
exposures to tobacco smoke, mold, and pets, downwinders were 20 to 90
percent more likely than upwinders to have been diagnosed with
emphysema, pneumonia, sinus trouble, asthma, or allergies.

No. 2: Using Feigley's questionnaire, Dietrich Rothenbacher at
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill polled some 400 households
in two communities near a hazardous waste incinerator--one upwind, the
other downwind. Downwinders reported more diagnoses of emphysema, sinus
trouble, and sleep-rousing or morning coughs.

No. 3: Michael Straight and his co-workers at the federal Agency for
Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in Atlanta compared 713
people living within 1.5 miles of a hazardous waste incinerator to 588
people about 8 miles from the plant. The closer community reported
almost nine times more coughing and wheezing, 2.4 times as much
neurologic disease (such as seizures and tremors), and 40 percent more
neurologic symptoms (including tingling, blackouts, and

No. 4: Melody M. Kawamoto of the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Cincinnati followed up documented reports
of headaches, hot flashes, irritability, memory problems, tremors, and
erratic blood pressure changes in workers from a then-closed hazardous
waste incinerator. All 14 symptomatic former employees suffered
headaches, dizziness, and memory problems.

No. 5: A team of researchers led by Woodall Stopford of Duke University
Medical Center in Durham, N.C., examined 29 men, ages 23 to 50, who
complained of chronic nausea, headache, dizziness, and feelings of
intoxication. All the men had worked at hazardous-waste incinerators.
Eight of the 15 men with joint pain had arthritis of unknown cause;
more than half the men had middle-ear disease causing vertigo [a
sensation as if the external world were revolving about the individual]
or gait problems; roughly half had memory problems; and 22 exhibited
sweating or wide fluctuations in pulse and blood pressure. Sleep
disorders, severe depression, and recurring suicidal thoughts plagued
27 of the 29 men. "And all [27] had difficulty controlling impulses--
rage reactions--either verbally or physically," Stopford said. Sixteen
of the men said they had "homicidal thoughts."

--Peter Montague


[1] EPA's licensing authority under RCRA has been summarized in a 5-
page letter from Lynn E. Moorer to Vice-President Albert Gore, dated
March 15, 1993.

[2] Gore quoted in a transcript of a March 10th meeting, attached to
Moorer's letter, cited above.

[3] Jeff Johnson, "States, EPA Regions Given Three Years to Start
Applying New Standards for BIFs," DAILY ENVIRONMENT REPORT May 20,
1993, pgs. AA-1, AA-2.

[4] Thanks to EPA's Hugh Kaufman, who provided a copy of the Dec. 7
meeting summary and a memo Kaufman himself wrote to Carol Browner May
7, 1993, about the summary.

[5] All five studies were described briefly in "Hazardous
incinerators?" SCIENCE NEWS Vol. 143 (May 22, 1993), pg. 334.

Descriptor terms: incineration; hazardous waste incineration; epa;
carol browner; interim status; rcra; bifs; wti; east liverpool, oh;
carbon tetrachloride; mercury; dioxin; ann aldrich; al gore; cement
kilns; international conference on the health effects of hazardous
waste; morbidity statistics; mortality statistics; statistics; studies;