Hazardous waste incineration got another black eye during a recent
Congressional hearing. It seems that for a decade--perhaps longer--
hazardous waste incinerators have been illegally burning radioactive
wastes shipped to them illegally by the federal Department of Energy
(DOE), the agency responsible for managing the nation's atomic bomb
It wasn't even the government that initially discovered this
embarassment. Journalist Peter Shinkle began a series of articles May
6, 1991, in the BATON ROUGE [LOUISIANA] TIMES about DOE shipping
radioactively-contaminated chemical wastes to a Baton Rouge incinerator
operated by Rollins Environmental Services--a facility not licensed to
accept radioactive wastes. Shinkle's articles led first to a DOE
investigation and later, on February 20, 1992, to a public hearing held
by California Congressman George Miller and the House Committee on
Interior and Insular Affairs.
Leo P. Duffy, a DOE assistant secretary, testified February 20 that
between 1984 and 1991 some 113,000 cubic yards of radioactive wastes
(about 200 boxcar-loads weighing 7000 tons) were shipped illegally to
eleven chemical waste disposal facilities (incinerators and dumps):
Aptus in Coffeeville, Kansas (1.6 million lb.); Chem Waste in Emelle,
Alabama (4.2 million pounds); Chem Waste in Chicago (1.1 million lb.);
Chem Waste in Sulpher, Louisiana (19,400 lb.); CECOS in Cincinnati, OH
(133,000 lb.); ENSCO in El Dorado, Arkansas (3.6 million pounds); GSX
(now Laidlaw) in Reidsville, North Carolina (18,766 lb.); LWD in
Calvert City, Kentucky (86,440 lb.); Rollins in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
(2.4 million lb.); Rollins in Deer Park, Texas (896,511 lb.); and SD
Myers in Talmadge, Ohio (18,143 lb.). Duffy testified that 25 DOE sites
had shipped illegal radioactive wastes and another 11 highly-suspect
DOE sites remain to be checked. DOE hasn't had time to check the
records from these additional sites because they have only known about
the problem for nine months, he said. Duffy said, in all, perhaps 150
incinerators, landfills, fuel blending operations, recyclers and other
waste facilities had accepted wastes from DOE but, so far, DOE has only
confirmed that illegal RADIOACTIVE wastes went to 11 or 12 of them. DOE
is continuing to investigate itself and its contractors, and Duffy
promised to tell all as soon as all is known
At the hearing February 20, various waste companies sent top officials
to testify. George VanderVelde, vice president of science and
technology for Chemical Waste Management (Chem Waste) said his company
has an extensive in-depth state-of-the-art program for analyzing
incoming wastes for radioactivity and, he testified, "We have no
indication that we received any undetected radioactive substances from
The credibility of VanderVelde's testimony was undercut somewhat by
subsequent testimony from Illinois Attorney General Roland W. Burris,
who presented an internal memo from a Chem Waste employee dated
February 6, 1992--two weeks before the hearing--saying that Chem
Waste's Chicago incinerator was at that time holding 97 drums of
illegal radioactive waste they had received a year earlier from DOE.
Testimony indicated that Chem Waste had been unable to burn these
particular illegal radioactive wastes because its incinerator had been
shut down by an explosion in early 1991.
Martin Marietta Energy Systems--the company that operates the Oak Ridge
National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tennessee), the Paducah Gaseous
Diffusion Plant (Paducah, Kentucky), and the Portsmouth Gaseous
Diffusion Plant (Portsmouth, Ohio)--sent its president, Clyde Hopkins,
to testify that his employees had been illegally shipping radioactive
wastes to waste disposers like Rollins and Chem Waste for years. He
said his employees used white-out illegally to delete information from
shipping manifests indicating that the wastes were radioactive because
they believed "national security considerations" required them to. He
said enemies of the United States might glean valuable information
about U.S. atomic weapons by studying the wastes his staff had been
shipping illegally to Chem Waste and Rollins and the others. He
testified that his staff had been shipping uranium-238, uranium-235 and
technetium-99 mixed in with chemical wastes. Additional information
attached to his testimony indicated Martin Marietta had reason to
believe iodine-129, neptunium-237, and thorium-232 were also being
shipped off-site to various incinerators and landfills. (It is worth
noting that the federal air pollution standard for thorium-232 is now
five times stricter than the standard for plutonium-239, so tiny
amounts of such wastes are dangerous.)
C. Randolph Warner, Jr., chairman of ENSCO, a major waste incinerator
company in Arkansas, which burned nearly 4 million pounds of DOE's
illegal radioactive wastes during the 1980s, testified there was no
problem. All the wastes his company burned were safe, he said,
including the illegal radioactive ones.
The total radioactivity shipped illegally by DOE was 1/10th of a Curie,
the DOE testified, and they trotted out a risk assessment to show that,
on average, probably no one would have been harmed by dumping such
small amounts of radioactivity into the environment. This is the old
averaging trick, commonly used in risk assessments. Unfortunately, in
the real world individuals don't get exposed in an "average" way. Many
may not be exposed at all; a few may be exposed a great deal; the
average exposure remains low but those few people are in danger. It's
like the fellow said: if all the air were removed from this room for 10
minutes, the average amount of air during the year would hardly change
at all, but we would all be dead.
The problem of radioactive waste gets worse every time anyone looks.
April 9, Ohio's Senator John Glenn (Senate Committee on Governmental
Affairs) held a public hearing to announce that a draft study by U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified a minimum of
45,361 potentially radioactively contaminated sites across the U.S.
Every state has some. Colorado tops the list with 7,060 sites; Vermont
has only 36. This includes every place EPA could figure out where
radioactivity has ever been present. Not all these sites are
contaminated in a serious way but most are and will require cleanup.
Just the DOE's 108 facilities--many of which are large, complex and
badly contaminated--are presently estimated to cost $160 billion to
clean up over the next 30 years. This estimate is almost certainly low.
In addition to the 45,361 potentially contaminated sites--some 15 or 20
thousand of which may actually require cleanup--there are another 1.5
million oil and gas wells where, it was discovered last year,
radioactive radium-226 and radium-228 have been brought to the surface
along with oil and gas. The insides of oil extraction pipes are coated
with a "scale" containing radium up to 100,000 times higher than
natural background levels. In addition, much radioactivity from oil and
gas wells has been dumped into shallow pits. In some cases, oil
companies have donated old oil pipes to schools and municipalities,
which have made jungle gyms, swing sets and parking lot barriers out of
them. If old oil pipes are recycled, along with their radioactivity,
the radioactivity will be incorporated into new metal products.
At Senator Glenn's hearing April 9, Dan Reicher from Natural Resources
Defense Council (NRDC) noted that the government has never taken
official notice of the radioactivity measurable in ash produced by
burning coal. There are some 52,400 coal-burning power plants and
industrial units, all of which are producing an ash elevated in
radioactivity a few times higher than natural background levels.
EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Michael Shapiro testified April 9
that 1.1 billion tons of NORM (naturally occurring radioactive
material) wastes are produced each year by mineral processing, coal
power production, oil and gas exploration and production, geothermal
energy production, phosphorus and fertilizer production, and water
treatment. Such wastes are entire ly unregulated.
Then there is wood ash, which, it was announced last year, is
radioactive as well. During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States
tested atomic bombs above-ground in Nevada. The resulting radioactive
fallout swept eastward, blowin' on the wind. The radioactive strontium
and cesium settled out onto the ground and, as time passed, migrated
into the soil. A-bomb enthusiasts assumed, optimistically, that it had
In 1989, Stewart A. Farber, who manages environmental monitoring for
the Yankee Atomic Electric Company in Bolton, Massachusetts, wondered
if radioactive strontium and cesium from bomb fallout had been taken up
by tree roots. On a whim he took some ash from his home fireplace
and tested it in his lab. It was about 100 times more radioactive than
any other environmental sample he had ever checked. Now two years
later, Farber has checked 47 samples gathered by 16 scientists in 14
states and he says wood ash "is a major source of radioactivity
released into the environment." Only wood ash from California (upwind
of the Nevada test site) seems free of radioactive fallout.
Industrial wood burning produces an estimated 900,000 tons of ash each
year; residential and utility wood burning generate another 543,000
tons. Many companies recycle their wood ash into fertilizer.
Farber says current regulations require wastes from a nuclear power
plant to be disposed of as radioactive wastes if they contain one
percent as much radioactivity as is found in wood ash from New England.
Radioactivity is widely acknowledged to cause inheritable genetic
changes, immune system damage, reproductive damage, developmental
disorders, and cancer. It is also widely acknowledged that the only
truly safe dose of radiation is zero.
From the viewpoint of radioactive contamination alone, it makes sense
to begin phasing out petroleum, uranium, and coal. And for similar
reasons, presented earlier (see RHWN #225, #263, #264), it would be
smart to phase out chlorine, too.
Phase out or ban petroleum, uranium, chlorine and coal. That simple,
far-reaching formula would keep 90% of contemporary environmental
problems from getting worse.
 Janet Raloff, "Wood ash: The unregulated radwaste," SCIENCE NEWS
August 10, 1991, pg. 95.
Descriptor terms: doe; radioactive waste; ks; al; cecos international;
ensco; ar; gsx; nc; lwd; ky; tx; s d myers; oh; cwmi; radioactive
wastes; radioactivity; martin marietta; oak ridge, tn; tn; paducah, ky;
portsmouth, oh; landfilling; uranium; iodine; epa; nrdc; stewart faber;
yankee atomic electric company; ma; wood ash; coal; radioactive waste;