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

#311 - Jacksonville, 11-Nov-1992

On Tuesday, October 27, one week before his election as President of
the United States, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas gave the final
order to start burning dioxin in an incinerator in a residential area
of Jacksonville, Arkansas, a community of 29,000 people 15 miles
northeast of Little Rock. The incinerator was built in the residential
neighborhood with state funds for the purpose of burning 30,000 barrels
of mixed hazardous wastes abandoned in Jacksonville by a company called
Vertac Chemical, which manufactured pesticides and herbicides there
from 1948 to 1986.

The NEW YORK TIMES (Nov. 2, 1992, pg. B11) reported that the Governor
made the decision himself to start the burn: "Mr. Clinton, who has
overseen the investigation and cleanup at Vertac most of the last 13
years, gave final approval on Tuesday to a plan to burn the chemical
wastes in an incinerator...." The TIMES said (Oct. 28, 1992, pg. A14),
"No other environmental issue in Arkansas has so dominated the public
debate during Gov. Bill Clinton's 12 years in the Governor's Mansion as
the chemical contamination in Jacksonville and what to do about it."

Over the years the Vertac site was used for manufacture of DDT, aldrin,
dieldrin, toxaphene and the chemical warfare defoliants 2,4-D, Silvex,
2,4,5-T, and Agent Orange. In 1979 state and federal investigators
discovered dioxin on the Vertac property and in the soil and water
several hundred yards from the site. Official surveys subsequently
found dioxin from the plant in Jacksonville's central city park, making
its once-popular swimming and fishing lake off limits to the public.

Almost immediately, citizens began pressing for a thorough, safe
cleanup of the Vertac site. In what has now become a familiar story,
state and federal authorities delayed cleanup. According to the NEW
YORK TIMES, "Since 1979... Vertac's toxic wastes and what to do about
them have been the source of considerable strife in the community and
have dominated the attention of Gov. Bill Clinton and his environmental
advisers." (Oct. 30, 1992, pg. A16.)

In 1986, Vertac declared bankruptcy and willed its 93-acre site to the
people of Arkansas. Vertac's executives abruptly left town and have
never been successfully traced. The NEW YORK TIMES said, "Vertac
abandoned the plant leaving behind roughly 30,000 barrels of chemical
wastes, along with acres of contaminated soil, tanks filled with toxic
materials, and miles of poisonous piping. The EPA [U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency] considers the site one of the country's worst
hazardous waste sites, not only because of [the] extent of the
contamination but also because the plant is only a few blocks from a
day care center, a hospital, and hundreds of houses." (Oct. 28, 1992,
pg. A14.)

By 1989 state and federal officials had made firm plans to build an
incinerator in a residential neighborhood of Jacksonville to burn some
22 million pounds of Vertac's dioxin-laced wastes.

On at least two occasions a majority of the citizens of Jacksonville
expressed, through referendums and public meetings, that they did not
want the incinerator built. Many local people considered it a dirty,
dangerous way to "get rid of" the wastes. They pointed out that cleanup
teams had already packed the 30,000 barrels in special drums, which
were not an immediate threat. The real threat was the wastes already
released into the community, the ground and the groundwater.
Incinerating the 30,000 barrels would be a cosmetic gesture that did
not address the residual problems. State and federal officials ignored
these expressions of sentiment and forged ahead with their plan to burn
the visible evidence, to make Jacksonville look clean again. The real
cleanup of soil and water would have to wait for a later time.

In 1990, Marco Kaltofen, a chemical engineer with the National Toxics
Campaign presented Governor Clinton with a White Paper outlining
alternatives to incineration, including chemical destruction
(dechlorination), and above-ground storage in steel-reinforced concrete
buildings.[1] Subsequently in 1991 the U.S. Office of Technology
Assessment (an arm of Congress) released a report called DIOXIN
TREATMENT TECHNOLOGIES, in which they reported the successful
destruction of dioxin-containing wastes by chemical dechlorination
processes. Chemical dechlorination occurs inside a closed container,
releasing nothing to the surrounding environment. Jacksonville has two
other Superfund dumps besides the Vertac site, and OTA reported that a
chemical dechlorination technology called BCD had been shown to
successfully detoxify soils from these other sites. "Test results
confirmed that BCD is a candidate technology for the cleanup of halo-
carbon-contaminated liquids and soils in an environmentally acceptable
manner (closed system)," OTA said.[2] The term "halo-carbon" in this
case referred specifically to 2,4,-D, Silvex, 2,4,5-T, and dioxins,
which were successfully destroyed by the BCD process. The U.S. Navy has
selected BCD technology to clean up its contaminated sites, and has
built a BCD decontamination machine which is in use now to clean up
PCB-contaminated soils in Stockton, California. State and federal
officials in Arkansas turned a blind eye to these alternative
technologies.

At public meetings throughout 1989 and 1990 --some of which we
attended--state and federal environmental officials insisted repeatedly
that the Vertac site incinerator would emit zero dioxin into the
surrounding community.

A trial burn was conducted during October, 1991. State and federal
officials examined the data and declared the incinerator a resounding
success. But Greenpeace chemist Pat Costner analyzed the trial burn
data and published her own analysis, showing that the incinerator had
not achieved the required 99.9999% destruction of the wastes, but had
in fact achieved only 99.96% destruction. This meant that the
incinerator was releasing 400 times as much dioxin as the regulations
intended.

State and federal officials studied Costner's analysis and subsequently
admitted that she was right. Costner then calculated that the
incinerator would release somewhere between 150 and 800 grams of dioxin
into the community during the two-year burn. Is this a lot of dioxin?
EPA has established a "safe" level of dioxin as 0.000001 micrograms of
dioxin per kilogram of body weight per day. If you ate this much dioxin
every day for a lifetime and retained it all in your body, you would
accumulate a body burden of 1.79 micrograms of dioxin. (A microgram is
a millionth of a gram, and there are 28 grams in an ounce.) So we'll
call 1.79 micrograms an "EPA safe" dose.

If we say, somewhat arbitrarily, that 10 times this amount represents
an "EPA unsafe" dose, we can calculate that the Vertac incinerator will
emit somewhere between 8 million and 45 million "EPA unsafe" doses of
dioxin into the community of Jacksonville during the two-year burn.
State and federal officials say the proposed burn does not violate any
state or federal laws and thus should be allowed to proceed. One
Arkansas health department official excused the dumping of 150 to 800
grams of dioxin into the community saying, "You have to appreciate how
much dioxin there is in this community already." Pat Costner points out
that this will be the largest intentional release of dioxin that has
ever been executed.

Officials of the Arkansas Health Department say they had nothing to do
with choosing incineration to get rid of the Vertac wastes. However,
they have made careful plans to take advantage of the experiment by
gathering data about dioxin levels in human tissues in Jacksonville
residents before and after the burn. The pre-burn study of dioxin in
blood and urine of Jacksonville residents will be released some time
during the next month or so. After the experimental burn is over, new
samples will be taken and comparisons will be made to see what levels
of toxins (if any) have lodged in the tissues of the human subjects of
the Jacksonville dioxin experiment. "I can say without fear of
contradiction, we will have the best database on [dioxin in tissues of]
the general population of the U.S. that has ever been developed," Dr.
Morris Kranmer, principal investigator of the study, told us. No long-
term followup of health effects in the community has been planned.

Despite massive pressure from national environmental groups and local
community organizations, one week before the election, Bill Clinton
gave the final order to begin the Jacksonville dioxin burn experiment.
The NEW YORK TIMES noted, "Unfavorable publicity about the Vertac
project contributed to Mr. Clinton's reputation as a leader with a less
than sterling environmental record, his aides said. 'He's been beaten
up pretty badly over this,' said Kenneth L. Smith, Mr. Clinton's top
environmental advisor." (Nov. 2, 1992, pg. B11.)

The TIMES went on: "The Vertac project has become typical of toxic
waste cleanups around the country in which costs escalate amid
interminable delays caused by Federal rules aimed at gaining public
trust. Mr. Smith said the Governor believed that unless changes were
made in the rules and the public began to accept some degree of risk,
fewer toxic-waste cleanup projects could proceed or ever larger sums of
money would be siphoned from the Government's budget for all
environmental programs."

No sooner had the Governor given the go-ahead than a coalition of five
organizations--including the Washington-based Government Accountability
Project--sued in court to stop the experiment. Judge Stephen M.
Reasoner ruled October 29 that the experimental burn could go ahead for
three days, during which the state must test the incinerator's ability
to destroy dioxin with 99.9999% efficiency. If anything less than
99.9999% is achieved, "the Court orders that the burning be stopped
immediately," said Judge Stephen M. Reasoner.

The experimental burn occurred over the weekend, but by that time
Governor Clinton's attention had been swept up by other matters, namely
a nation to which he has solemnly promised that things will now be
different.

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Marco Kaltofen and Sanford J. Lewis, A WHITE PAPER ON THE
FEASIBILITY OF ALTERNATIVES TO INCINERATION OF WASTES AT THE VERTAC
SITE IN JACKSONVILLE, ARKANSAS (Boston: National Toxics Campaign Fund,
October 27, 1990).

[2] U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, DIOXIN TREATMENT
TECHNOLOGIES--BACKGROUND PAPER [OTA-BP-O-93] (Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Government Printing Office, November, [1991).]1991).

Descriptor terms: jacksonville, ar; ar; hazardous waste incineration;
dioxin; alternative treatment technologies; bill clinton; ota;
hazardous waste treatment technologies; hazardous waste disposal
technologies; incineration; vertac chemical co; pesticides; herbicides;
chemical weapons; agent orange; superfund; remedial action; ntc;