Incinerator problems in Philadelphia foreshadow the future for hundreds
of communities across America. The NEW YORK TIMES reported November 15
(pg. 1) that 210 municipal solid waste incinerators are under
construction now around the country, with many more to be built in the
coming decade. And, said the TIMES, 25 states have petitioned the U.S.
EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to have incinerator ash
officially declared "non-hazardous" so it can be dumped in municipal
landfills and not handled (expensively) as legally-hazardous waste. How
the ash is handled--cheaply or expensively--could well determine the
viability of municipal incinerator technology. Philadelphia is facing
the ash problem squarely now.
Philadelphia has been burning 40% of its trash in two large
incinerators since the late-1970s. Initially, the ash was dumped across
the Delaware river in the Kinsley landfill in New Jersey. Then New
Jersey got smarter about landfill problems and closed Kinsley to
Philadelphia's ash in late 1984. Philadelphia sued NJ but lost.
Philadelphia had to--and still has to--find a permanent solution to its
ash problem or close down its incinerators. Pennsylvania landfills take
some of the ash, but as citizens learn about the toxicity of
incinerator ash and about the certainty that landfills will all
eventually leak, local fights develop and one dump after another closes
its gates to Philadelphia's ash.
In December, 1986, Philadelphia's mayor, Wilson Goode, announced a new
plan: a contract had been signed with a Pennsylvania firm,
Bulkhandling, to barge a million tons of Philadelphia's ash to the city
of Changuinola in the Province of Bocas del Toro in the country of
Panama in Central America where it would be mixed with sand and lime to
build a highway 30 feet wide, three feet thick, and several hundred
miles long. The first year's shipment would be 250,000 tons.
Environmentalists raised their eyebrows at this plan but only one group
did anything about it: Greenpeace.
Greenpeace collected reports from the federal EPA showing that
Philadelphia's ash contains hazardous levels of lead, cadmium, benzene
and dioxin. It fed these reports to the Panamanian government through
its embassy in Washington. The U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID) in January, 1987, began asking U.S. EPA in
Washington whether the rumors were true, that the ash was toxic. EPA in
Washington relied on data from EPA Region III in Philadelphia and sent
back word, "No problem." But rumors and questions persisted in Panama;
in May, 1987, as Greenpeace and friends fanned the flames of doubt, the
U.S. Ambassador in Panama wired the U.S. State Department in Washington
citing the chilling effect it would have on international relations if
Uncle Sam shipped dioxin-laced ash to foreign friends.
Throughout the summer, Panama's interest in the proposal quickened.
Then on September 8, one week before the first shipment of ash was
scheduled to leave Philadelphia by barge, two Greenpeace activists,
Kenn Hollis and Richard Harvey, scaled City Hall in downtown
Philadelphia at 2:30 in the morning and hung a huge banner to greet
workers as they streamed into center city after sunrise; it said in
English, "Don't Export Toxic Ash to Panama," and in Spanish, "Don't
Poison Panama." The two were arrested. Simultaneously, Greenpeace
provided Panamanian journalists with news that the ash shipment was
imminent--something no one in Panama knew. The resulting news stories
in Panama raised an immediate outcry. Two days later, Dr. Augustin
Luna, a spokesperson for the Panamanian Ministry of Health, told United
Press International, "We have given orders to our defense forces that
this trash cannot enter the territorial waters of Panama." "Panama
won't accept it for the same reason six states in the United States
won't accept it," he said.
Now EPA in Washington swung into high gear. A week later, internal
documents show, half a dozen branches of EPA hurriedly gathered data on
Philadelphia's ash. EPA's Inspector General--the highest investigative
authority within the agency--put together a summary report dated
October 5, 1987, which said, "Our contacts with [U.S. government]
experts confirm that the [Panamanian road-building] project will very
likely create serious environmental and human health damage."
The Inspector General's report makes many important points, among them:
** The Pennsylvania firm, Bulkhandling, in concert with a Norwegian
shipping firm, has contracted with the Panamanian city, Changuinola, to
ship up to 660,000 tons of ash per year for 10 years, for a total of
6.6 million tons of ash. This is more than Philadelphia can produce, so
there must be plans for other (undisclosed) cities to ship their ash to
** Philadelphia's ash is "considerably more toxic than previously
publicized" by the regional EPA office in Philadelphia. Region III EPA
(in Philadelphia) had suppressed studies of the ash showing its true
toxicity. The EPA Inspector General describes in detail the evidence
available to Region III, which was never reported to Washington, and
concludes, "It is clear from the above results that the actual levels
of 2,3,7,8-TCDD [dioxin], as well as the overall dioxin toxicity of the
ash, are significantly greater than previously publicized by Region
III." The report makes clear that the regional EPA office, like the
city of Philadelphia, had contrived to prevent the Panamanians from
understanding what they were getting into.
** Although the ash may not meet the legal definition of hazardous
waste, it can nevertheless damage the environment: "And the presence of
heavy metals and toxic chemicals, despite being generally below
hazardous waste thresholds, nevertheless may cause serious damage if
released into the environment," says the Inspector General's report,
citing 1800 pounds of arsenic, 4300 pounds of cadmium, and 435,000
pounds of lead in the first year's shipment of 250,000 tons of ash.
This is an important admission by a high EPA official and incinerator
fighters should note it and quote it.
Not surprisingly, the Panama caper came home to roost in Philadelphia.
Local people, who have been complaining about the city's incinerators
for nearly a decade, came out fighting: "If it's bad for Panama, what
about the people up here?" asked Bill Schwartz, president of the
Germany Hill Civic Association. It was not lost on local people that
the EPA Inspector General's report revealed the ash contained more
dioxin than the soil at Times Beach, Missouri, where the whole town was
evacuated in 1983, and that regional EPA officials in Philadelphia had
misrepresented the situation. Philadelphia in mid-October had 280,000
tons of ash stored, awaiting final disposal. The city is not close to
finding a solution; indeed, there is none in sight.
For the Inspector General's report, write John C. Martin, Inspector
General's Office, EPA, 401 M Street, SW, Washington, DC 20460; phone
(202) 382-3137; request a copy of "Flash Report--Philadelphia
Incinerator Ash Exports for Panamanian Road Project--Potential
Environmental Damage in the Making," dated Oct. 5, 1987.
Descriptor terms: msw; incineration; ash; philadelphia, pa; pa;
hazardous waste; heavy metals; greenpeace; garbage barge; panama;