An internal memo sent to all 10 regional offices of EPA [U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency] by Sylvia Lowrance, EPA Director of
Solid Waste, confirms that hazardous waste incinerators cannot meet EPA
requirements for near-total destruction of hazardous wastes. (See RHWN
EPA's incinerator regulations require 99.99 percent destruction of all
hazardous wastes and 99.9999 percent destruction of especially-
hazardous wastes such as PCBs and dioxins. The Lowrance memo dated
Sept. 22, 1992, and interviews with Sonya Sasseville of Ms. Lowrance's
staff, confirm that the agency possessed scientific information as
early as 1984 showing that hazardous waste incinerators cannot destroy
some of the most dangerous wastes as completely as the regulations
EPA possessed this information but chose to ignore it when hazardous
waste incinerator regulations were established for dioxin in 1985.
These new revelations cast doubt on the safety of all hazardous waste
incinerators, and could conceivably lead to charges of criminal
wrongdoing by some EPA officials. The agency has been touting
incineration as "safe" for more than a decade. When asked, agency
officials define "safe" as "in compliance with all regulations." In
sum, the agency established regulations in 1985 knowing no incinerator
could comply, and now the agency's own logic forces the conclusion that
no hazardous waste incinerator can be operated safely. It would appear
to expose the agency to liability claims by anyone believing they have
been harmed by incinerator emissions.
EPA's acknowledgement of its malfeasance surfaced during an incinerator
battle in Jacksonville, Arkansas. For the past decade Arkansas Governor
Bill Clinton and the citizens of Jacksonville, have been battling each
other over the Governor's plan to burn dioxin-contaminated chemical
warfare agents in a residential neighborhood of Jacksonville. (See RHWN
#311.) EPA officials in Region 6 (Dallas, Texas) supported the
The Jacksonville wastes contain an estimated 75 pounds (34 kilograms)
of pure dioxin, a poison that kills laboratory animals such as guinea
pigs exposed to only a few micrograms, making it one of the most
powerful poisons ever found. From 1988 onward, federal and state
environmental officials in Jacksonville said publicly on numerous
occasions that an incinerator could destroy dioxin with 99.9999 percent
efficiency, thus eliminating all health threats to the surrounding
community. The Lowrance memo makes it clear that Region 6 EPA officials
were either lying or were kept ignorant by officials at EPA
headquarters in Washington who knew the truth.
EPA's regulatory failure was discovered when an independent researcher,
chemist Pat Costner of Greenpeace, analyzed government data from the
Jacksonville incinerator as it was being tested before startup. In
early 1992, Costner analyzed government data collected during an
October, 1991, trial burn in Jacksonville. Her analysis revealed that
instead of 99.9999 percent ("six nines") destructiuon, the Jacksonville
incinerator had achieved only 99.96 percent destruction of dioxin.
Federal and state officials confirmed her analysis. At that rate the
Jacksonville incinerator would release 400 times as much dioxin as the
regulations say it should.
How the Regulations Work
EPA's hazardous waste regulations require the owner/operator of a new
incinerator to select several POHCs (principal organic hazardous
constituents)--chemicals to be destroyed. The selected POHCs must be
harder to burn than dioxin. The POHCs are "surrogates" for dioxin--they
"stand for" dioxin or "represent" dioxin during the test. During a
"trial burn," the POHC surrogates are fed into the incinerator in
nearly pure form under ideal laboratory conditions, and the
incinerator's ability to destroy them is measured. If a
destruction/removal efficiency (DRE) of 99.9999 percent is achieved
with the POHCs, then EPA allows the owner/operator to assume that
99.9999 percent of dioxin will also have been destroyed. It is this
assumption that EPA has known since 1984 is false.
The trial burn procedure was followed precisely in the Jacksonville
case, with one exception. The owner/operator inadvertently burned some
actual dioxin along with the POHCs during the trial burn and dutifully
reported the DRE for the POHCs, but did not analyze the data to
establish a DRE for dioxin. Costner did the calculation for dioxin and
revealed that dioxin was not destroyed with an efficiency anywhere near
Since Region 6 officials had been promising for several years that the
Jacksonville incinerator would destroy dioxin with six nines
efficiency, Costner's analysis made them look like fools or liars or
both. Region 6 called headquarters for guidance and on September 22,
Sylvia Lowrance sent out a memo telling regional EPA offices how to
handle this embarrassing situation.
The Lowrance memo says, in part, "The low dioxin DRE in this recent
[Jacksonville] case was consistent with our current body of incinerator
performance data, which show a very clear trend of decreasing DRE for
hazardous constituents with decreasing incoming concentration of the
constituents in the waste feed. (That is, the lower the constituent
concentration in the waste, the lower the DRE.) The data show that a
properly operating incinerator, which reached 99.99% DRE (four nines)
on higher concentrations of POHCs, will often achieve less than four
nines when the concentration of a POHC (principal organic hazardous
constituent) in the waste is less than 1000 ppm [parts per million]. At
this time we have not established a definitive scientific explanation
for this phenomenon," the memo says.
The Lowrance memo goes on to point out that, in establishing
regulations for incineration of dioxin-contaminated wastes, in 1985,
EPA relied on risk assessments in which the agency assumed that 99.9999
percent destruction was routinely achieved. "For this reason, the risk
assessment calculations performed in the course of the rulemaking may
not be representative in some cases," the Lowrance memo says. In sum,
the entire superstructure of regulations created for dioxin
incineration in 1985 was based on assumptions that the agency knew at
the time were false. Indeed, in an internal EPA memo dated October 24,
1985, Robert A. Olexsey, who was at the time an employee of EPA's
Hazardous Waste Environmental Research Laboratory, wrote "We have a
problem with the 'surrogate POHC' approach for the determination of the
dioxin destruction efficiency. In our incinerator and boiler field
tests, we found a consistent relationship.... In essence, across the
entire test program, POHC DRE increased with increasing POHC
concentration in the feed. If this relationship holds for dioxin (we
see no reason why it would not), reporting the DRE for the dioxin
material as being identical to that of the higher concentration
surrogate will result in overstating the DRE for the dioxin waste."
Olexsey went on to recommend that dioxin itself be measured during
incinerator tests, to check the efficiency of destruction, rather than
testing a POHC and assuming that it revealed something about dioxin.
Olexsey's advice was not followed.
During 1984-1985, John C. Kramlich of the Energy and Environmental
Research Corporation (Irvine, Cal.) completed a contract study for EPA,
analyzing the failure of hazardous waste incinerators to destroy
wastes. EPA did not publish the Kramlich study until 1989. Kramlich
wrote, "[Our] results indicate that current technology has difficulty
meeting the licensing regulations when the waste represents less than
1000 ppm [parts per million] of the feed stream. This finding has
significance with respect to waste streams contaminated by low
concentrations of extremely hazardous materials (e.g. dioxin or
chlorophenol contaminated pesticides)."
EPA's data reveal that all incinerators fail in the same way, but the
public health hazard seems especially great at sites burning wood-
preservative wastes, pesticides, PCBs, pulp and paper mill sludges, or
dioxins. All contaminated-soil incinerators, all Superfund cleanup
incinerators, and all of the Army's proposed chemical weapons
incinerators are also cast into doubt by EPA's recent admissions.
Furthermore, all of the agency's risk assessments and rulemakings
regarding hazardous waste incinerators are now known to have been based
on false assumptions. In short, the entire regulatory structure
intended to guarantee the protection of public health and safety from
hazardous waste incinerators has now been thrown into grave question.
 John C. Kramlich and others, EXPERIMENTAL INVESTIGATION OF CRITICAL
FUNDAMENTAL ISSUES IN HAZARDOUS WASTE INCINERATION (Springfield, VA:
National Technical Information Service [NTIS], September, 1989.) This
is EPA document No. EPA/600/2-[89/048] available from NTIS for $26.00;
phone (800) 553-6847 and request NTIS document No. PB90-108507. See
pgs. 5-1, 5-2.
IMPORTANT CONFERENCES IN EARLY DECEMBER
Southern Community/Labor Conference
The Southern Community/Labor Conference for Environmental Justice will
be held Dec. 4-6 at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana. This
conference is a regional follow-up to the People of Color Conference
held in Washington, D.C. a year ago.
For more information, phone (404) 622-4991 in Atlanta, Georgia.
On Dec. 3, the day before the conference begins, Tulane University Law
School and the National Conference of Black Lawyers will sponsor a one-
day continuing education seminar in New Orleans to help lawyers and
legal workers better serve the environmental justice movement. Contact:
Marcia Zimmerman at (504) 865-5900 in New Orleans.
Chlorine-Free Great Lakes
A conference called "Chlorine-Free Great Lakes: Local Action for a
Global Solution" will be held at St. Mary Center in Monroe, Michigan
December 4-6. The conference will offer workshops on every major use of
chlorine, the problems chlorine creates in humans and the environment,
and alternative technologies and substitutes available to replace
chlorine. This conference is aimed at community activists,
environmentalists, workers, and scientists.
Registration is limited, so act quickly: phone Bonnie Rice in Chicago
at (312) 666-3305. --Peter Montague
Descriptor terms: hazardous waste incineration; epa; waste disposal
technologies; waste treatment technologies; dre; regulations;
jacksonville, ar; ar; studies; sylvia lowrance; dioxin; health;