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#191 - Deja Vu, 24-Jul-1990

Deja vu means "already seen," a French phrase for "I've already lived
through this before." During the early '70s, we participated in a noisy
national debate over radioactive waste disposal. Now the debate over
toxic ash from garbage incinerators is replaying those tapes.

Garbage incinerators produce large quantities of ash heavily laced with
toxic heavy metals; for example, lead runs anywhere from 2500 ppm
(parts per million) to 6000 ppm in ash. The main problem is the
duration of the hazard: lead, cadmium, arsenic, and other toxic metals
simply do not degrade as time passes. They remain toxic, waiting to
poison the next generation, or the generation after that, as soon as
the waste "containment" system breaks down. The hazard is of infinite
duration, but human "containment" systems are all subject to the
ravages of time. Humans have never constructed anything that lasts
"forever," yet the natural hazards of heavy metals DO last forever.
That is the fundamental problem facing the producers of incinerator
ash; it is the very same problem faced by those who create radioactive

The garbage incineration industry--exactly like the nuclear industry 30
years before it--has gone through several obvious stages in trying to
"manage" the waste issue.

Stage 1. Don't worry, be optimistic. In 1956, the nuclear industry put
forth "Citizen Atom," a smiley-faced little fellow who was going to
deliver electricity "too cheap to meter." No mention of radioactive
waste. In the early 1980s, the garbage incinerator industry renamed
itself "resource recovery" and "waste to energy" even though it
destroyed resources instead of recovering them, and wasted far more
energy than it saved. Again, no mention of toxic waste ash.

Stage 2. Oblivious to the problem. During this period, the nuclear
industry simply buried wastes in the ground out back behind laboratory
buildings (for example, at Los Alamos, New Mexico), or wherever it was
convenient. Often they did not even mark the burial sites on maps or in
any other way. Today they are spending billions of our taxpayer dollars
to locate the hazards and confine them the best they can.

The garbage incineration industry went through a similar stage. For
example, at Saugus, Massachusetts, Wheelabrator ran an incinerator for
over 10 years and simply heaped the ash in a nearby swamp. Today, a $63
million containment program has been proposed at Saugus to confine the
problem, without any assurance that it will work.

Stage 3. Declare that a technical fix is all that we need. The nuclear
industry for 50 years has declared that all they need is a new, sturdy
barrel, or new type of cement or epoxy, or a glass block to encapsulate
the waste, or some other "engineering" solution. Likewise, the garbage
incineration industry today is declaring that all they need is a
double-lined "secure" landfill with a leachate collection system, or
the addition of some cement to the ash, or a special secret
("proprietary") way of mechanically crushing the ash to "solve" the
problem. [1] Reducing the problem to a "technical fix" means that only
technicians are welcome in the debate; in particular the "public"
should have no say. The social and human aspects of the problem--for
example, do we really need to make this ash?--are excluded when the
problem is defined in terms of a "technical fix."

Stage 4. Declare that the waste isn't a waste but is a resource in
disguise. The nuclear industry started saying this in the early 1950s
and sometimes still says it today. For example, after World War II,
plutonium-238 was proposed as an inside liner for deep sea divers'
suits to produce perpetual warmth. (This idea died because of obvious
dangers.) In the '70s, the industry declared that nuclear waste could
be used to irradiate sewage sludge, to kill bacteria and viruses.
Proponents of this particular technical fix forgot that humans would
have to package, transport, handle, install, maintain, and process the
radioactive wastes and that a commerce in powerfully dangerous
radioactive metals would thus be opened up (with attendant errors,
stupidities, accidents, mismanagement, malice, terrorism and so forth).
In short this "technical fix" ignored the human "management system"
that must accompany any technical system. (This idea eventually died
from citizen opposition bolstered by technical critiques from groups
like Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, NM.)

The garbage incinerator industry has just recently entered this stage.
Consulting firms like Roy F. Weston, [2] and independent consultants
funded by the incineration industry, have begun claiming that
incinerator ash shouldn't be considered dangerous. On the contrary,
they claim, incinerator ash is a resource that should be "recycled" to
make roads and build buildings, and thus should be distributed
throughout the environment. [3]

This is a form of the old argument, "dilution is the solution to
pollution"--spread the stuff around enough and there will be only a low
concentration in any particular place. (At one point, complete dilution
was half-heartedly proposed as a way to "get rid of" nuclear waste--fly
it over the oceans and toss it out, distributing it thinly everywhere.)
These "solutions" ignore the well-known and well-documented phenomenon
called bioconcentration or biomagnification. When toxic (or
radioactive) metals enter the environment, they enter food chains and
they concentrate as they move up the food chain. Since humans eat from
the top of the food chain, toxic heavy metals (or nuclear wastes)
spread throughout the environment will affect humans most severely.
Dilution is most definitely not the solution to pollution. Once
incinerator ash is put beneath highways, or into the walls of
buildings, or into other construction projects, we will (a) no longer
remember where we put it; (b) no longer be able to control where is
goes next; (c) no longer be able to protect ourselves and our children
from its poisonous effects as it enters food chains.

Stage 5. Develop a "public relations" solution: simply declare the
problem solved by renaming the waste. In the nuclear industry, this is
being attempted now. The proposal is to strip the name "radioactive"
from one-third of the nation's stockpile of so-called "low level"
radioactive waste. Instead of being termed "radioactive," the renamed
wastes would be called BRC, which is short for "below regulatory
concern." BRC wastes would be allowed to join the stream of household
trash and to be put into landfills, incinerators, recycling programs,
compost, or wherever normal trash now goes. (See RHWN #185.)

A parallel move is underway by the people who produce toxic incinerator
ash. There are bills in Congress now to strip the name "hazardous" off
incinerator ash that has earned that label by failing the EPA's decade-
old "EP Toxicity test," which is the official test for deciding which
wastes are "hazardous" and which are not. Incinerator ash often tests
"hazardous" by the EP Tox test, but if you rename it "special waste"
maybe people won't realize it's toxic enough to poison their children.
(Do they really think people are so stupid?)

After two decades of debate, the radioactive waste makers have now
agreed that burial half a mile below ground is the only reasonable
solution to their problem--and even that may not work. The people who
make incinerator ash could perhaps benefit from studying history.

--Peter Montague


[1] Keith E. Forrester and Richard W. Goodwin, "Engineering Management
of MSW Ashes: Field Empirical Observations of Concrete-like
Characteristics." In Theodore G. Brna and Raymond Klicius, eds., Vol. I
HOLLYWOOD, FL, April 11-14, 1989, pg. 5b-16. Ottawa, Cn: Minister of
Supply and Services Canada, 1989. Catalog No. En 40-11/14-1989e.

[2] Charles O. Velzy and Matthew Goldman, "Waste-to-Energy Ash:
Hazardous or Non-Hazardous Waste?" NEW JERSEY EFFLUENTS Vol. 23
(Winter, 1989), pgs. 31-37.

[3] See Robert Collins and Hank Cole, ALERT: TOXIC HIGHWAYS; THE PLAN
Fund [317 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20003; phone (202) 546-
6616], 1989).

Descriptor terms: incinerator ash; radioactive waste; waste
repositories; hlw; llw; brc; incineration; wheelabrator; saugus, ma;
roy weston; biomagnification; labeling; nuclear energy;