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

#325 - A Sea Of Troubles Engulfs Incineration, 16-Feb-1993

The incineration industry has suffered a series of major setbacks in
recent weeks. The federal government's showcase dioxin-burning
incinerator in Jacksonville, Arkansas--to which Bill Clinton personally
gave a green light one week before he was elected President (see RHWN
#311)--was shut down last week by a federal judge. Lawyers for EPA
(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) admitted to U.S. District Judge
Stephen Reasoner in Little Rock that the Jacksonville incinerator could
not destroy 99.9999% of the dioxin fed into it, as is required by EPA
regulations, whereupon the judge ordered the plant shut.

It was a stunning victory for Greenpeace chemist Pat Costner, who had
been the first to reveal that incinerators could not achieve 99.9999%
destruction (see RHWN #312 and #280), and for local activist-citizens
like Sharon Golgan in Jacksonville who had fought the incinerator
proposal for at least six years.

The nation's other showcase incinerator--built by Waste Technologies
Industries (WTI) on the banks of the Ohio River in East Liverpool,
Ohio--was fighting for its life in federal court in Cleveland earlier
this week. Local citizens there have been opposing the WTI incinerator
proposal for 12 years. EPA's Region 5 office in Chicago and Ohio state
officials bent the rules, and even broke a few, to give WTI a permit to
start burning wastes (see RHWN #287). The state of West Virginia, local
citizens, and Greenpeace filed a lawsuit January 13 asking a federal
judge to prevent WTI from conducting a "test burn."[1] As soon as a
test burn is completed, the WTI incinerator can begin commercial
operation for up to a year while EPA evaluates the test results. (Vice-
President Al Gore said December 7, 1992, that he and Mr. Clinton would
stop WTI from proceeding until a study was completed of all health
issues, and all legal issues surrounding EPA's issuance of a permit
[see RHWN #315]]--but it now appears that Mr. Gore has changed his
mind.) Federal Judge Ann Aldrich in Cleveland issued a temporary
restraining order against WTI January 15 and set February 16 as the day
she would decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction, which would
prevent WTI from conducting the trial burn until a full court trial
could be held.[2]

As we go to press, it is not clear how this phase of the battle will
come out. However, secret EPA documents that came to light during in
court have raised serious health questions about every incinerator in
the country, including solid waste incinerators.


At issue in every instance is dioxin, which is created as an unwanted
byproduct of incineration (and as a byproduct of other industrial
processes, such as pulp and paper manufacture, and the manufacture of
some pesticides). In April, 1991, EPA began a major "scientific
reassessment" of dioxin and discovered that effects of dioxin can be
observed in human cells at the levels of exposure now present in the
environment. In other words, there's already sufficient dioxin in the
environment to produce observable effects in humans. The Clinton/Gore
administration knows this is a problem because a December, 1992,
briefing document prepared by the EPA Transition Team says, "This
[EPA's dioxin reassessment] is likely to be an extremely controversial
document as there are new findings indicating adverse reproductive
effects at existing environmental levels."

A Secret Risk Assessment and a Leaked Memo

EPA's position throughout the 1980s has been that incineration is safe,
even though every incinerator is known to produce dioxin. To "prove"
the safety of incinerators, EPA has used a technique called "risk
assessment." A risk assessment estimates the amount of dioxin being
released, estimates various pathways it might travel through the
environment, and calculates the resulting exposures of humans. Finally,
a risk assessment estimates the health effects resulting from the
calculated exposures.

In the case of dioxin, over the years EPA's "standard" risk assessment
has assumed that airborne dioxin only enters humans through their
lungs. Dioxin that falls to the ground and is then incorporated into
the food chain and eaten has always been ignored in EPA risk

However, the EPA's team of scientists conducting the official
"reassessment" of dioxin's toxicity published a draft report last
they clearly stated that a proper risk assessment for an incinerator
must include all routes of exposure for dioxin, not merely via the
lungs.[3] It is well known that dioxins accumulate in the food chain,
and that meat, milk and fish are the major sources of dioxin exposure
for humans.[4]

When Greenpeace researcher Joe Thornton did his own risk assessment on
the WTI incinerator, using the technique recommended in EPA's draft
report, including dioxins in beef and milk, he found that WTI posed
risks 10000 times higher than EPA had calculated. To counter Thornton,
EPA did its own food-chain risk assessment, which was not released to
the public, but which came to light in court.[5] The EPA's secret risk
assessment concludes that dioxin from WTI is 1000 times more dangerous
than the "official" published EPA risk assessment says it is.

Leaving aside the serious ethical issue of EPA refusing to publish
important health and safety information about WTI, an internal memo
from Richard Guimond, acting chief of EPA's Office of Solid Waste and
Emergency Response, dated January 22, 1993, leaked to Greenpeace, says,
"There are very serious implications associated with adopting risk
assessment procedures based on indirect exposure routes for air
emission sources."[6] Translation: if food-chain exposures are now to
be counted in incinerator risk assessments, many incinerators will be
found to be unacceptably dangerous.

The new understanding of dioxin--that it's already present in the
environment at levels that affect humans--plus the inclusion of food-
chain exposures in risk assessments, plus the failure of incinerators
to achieve the destruction efficencies required by regulations--all
seem to add up to a mushrooming debacle for the incineration industry.

What are the alternatives to incineration?

Jacksonville holds the key

EPA scientists have known since 1985 that incinerators cannot achieve
99.9999% efficiency in destroying wastes present in low concentrations
(see RHWN #280 and #312.), but EPA officials have stated at hundreds of
public presentations since 1985 that 99.9999% could be achieved. Lying
to the public carries no penalty, but lying to a judge is a different
matter. At the hearing in Little Rock February 12, EPA was represented
by U.S. Justice Department lawyer Ron Spritzer. Judge Reasoner said to
Spritzer, "Indulge me for a moment. If I asked you to prove that you
could achieve a six 9 DRE [99.9999% destruction and removal efficiency]
on dioxin, could you physically produce technological data that shows

"No sir, we could not," said Mr. Spritzer.[7]

That damaging admission was sufficient for the judge. He ordered the
plant shut. EPA is considering appealing the judge's verdict, but they
do not appear to have a strong case. In all likelihood, the
Jacksonville incinerator is shut for good.

The Jacksonville incinerator was in considerable trouble even before
Judge Reasoner's decision. On January 22, an Arkansas state official
revealed that the incinerator was producing a larger volume of
hazardous waste than it was destroying. The machine had been set up in
a residential neighborhood of Jacksonville to "destroy" 30,000 drums of
hazardous liquids left over from a defunct chemical factory that had
made chemical warfare agents on the site for many years (most recently,
herbicides for Vietnam). Local citizens had recommended moving the
waste out of town by rail, or simply building a concrete mausoleum on
the site to contain the waste safely until someone found a way to
detoxify it. But Arkansas and federal EPA officials insisted that
incineration was the safest, cheapest solution to the problem. They
convinced then-Governor Bill Clinton to put up $10.7 million of state
money to build and operate the incinerator.

At the end of a year's burning, 9,600 drums of waste had been
"destroyed" by the Jacksonville incinerator, but in the process the
incinerator had created 12,000 drums of salt and another 1730 drums of
ash (13,730 drums total) for a net gain of 43% in the volume of waste.
Furthermore, the salt and the ash are so laced with dioxin that they
are legally a "hazardous waste" and thus cannot be taken off the site.

"We did not anticipate this," said Doug Szenher, a spokesperson for the
Arkansas state department of Pollution Control and Ecology. "The whole
idea was that the salt and ash was to have been de-listed [declared
non-hazardous] and taken to a landfill site. It just didn't work out
that way," he said.[8]

So after spending $7 million burning chemicals fruitlessly for a year,
EPA is now spending $400,000 to build a 30,000-square-foot building on
the site, to store the hazardous salt and ash until someone can figure
out how to detoxify it. So far as we know, this is the first above-
ground mausoleum built to store hazardous waste. (See RHWN #260.) In
Jacksonville, above-ground concrete storage will soon be a real,
demonstrated alternative to incineration.

--Peter Montague


[1] GREENWIRE staff, "WTI Incinerator: Foes File Suit in Effort to
Block Test," GREENWIRE Vol. 2 No. 171 (January 14, [1993).] GREENWIRE
is "the daily executive briefing on the environment" available on-line;
phone (703) 237-5130.

[2] GREENWIRE staff, "Incinerator: WTI Counters with Suit of its Own,"
GREENWIRE Vol. 2 No. 172 (January 15, 1993). GREENWIRE is "the daily
executive briefing on the environment" available on- line; phone (703)

[3] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ESTIMATING EXPOSURE TO
(Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, August, 1992).

[4] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cited above, Appendix B.

[5] Memo from William Farland, director of EPA's Office of Health and
Environmental Assessment, to Brian Grant, U.S. Department of Justice,
"WTI Screening Level Analysis," dated Feb. 8, 1993, attaching a 21-page
risk assessment called "Screening Level Analysis of Impacts From WTI
Facility," dated Feb. 5, 1993.

[6] Memo from Richard Guimond, Acting Assistant Administrator, Office
of Solid Waste and Emergency response, to EPA Administrator Carol
Browner, "WTI Incinerator Issues," dated January 22, 1993. 2 pgs.

[7] Sandy Davis, "Judge Halts Dioxin Burn at Vertac," ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT
GAZETTE February 13, 1993, pgs. 1A, 13A.

[8] Sandy Davis, "At vertac, more waste rolls out than in," ARKANSAS
DEMOCRAT GAZETTE January 24, 1993, pg. 12A.

Descriptor terms: incineration; epa; oh; risk assessment; ar; dioxin;
wti; hazardous waste; health; jacksonville, ar; east liverpool, oh;
waste disposal technologies; waste treatment technologies;

Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (29)