Liquid PCBs were supposed to be incinerated in Texas but the capacitors they were in ended up buried in New York.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental firms are busy trying to explain how roughly 540 gallons of liquid toxic waste from the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant were lost two months ago en route to incineration in Port Arthur, Texas.
About three gallons of the liquid, containing nearly pure polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) waste, were in each of 180 large electrical capacitors once used in the plant's vast electrical system. Shipped Sept. 11, the capacitors wound up Sept. 22 in a Model City, N.Y., hazardous waste landfill, but the environmental firms involved in the shipment don't know where the liquid contents went.
"We've lost some PCBs," said Greg Cook, spokesman for Bechtel Jacobs, lead environmental contractor for the Department of Energy, which owns the plant. "Right now, we know what was supposed to happen with the waste. We know it didn't go where we expected it to go."
Bechtel Jacobs learned of the trouble last week from WESKEM, its waste-handling subcontractor, which said it had been unable to track the shipment, Cook said.
"It started to shape up for us last week," he said. "At first, we didn't have any answer at all. We were sort of hoping we would have the whole story, and actually be able to say this is what did or did not happen with the PCBs. But we haven't reached that point yet."
In late October, WESKEM received certification from the New York landfill operator, CWM Chemical Services, that the capacitors were buried Sept. 25. Cook said WESKEM suspected a problem because CWM is not on Bechtel Jacobs' regular list of approved disposal sites.
The liquid, shipped by Bechtel Jacobs' broker Clean Harbor Environmental Services, may have been buried with the capacitors, Cook said. That would violate hazardous waste law because the landfill, run by CWM Chemical Services, can only receive liquid PCB waste with advance permission from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, he said.
No such permission was given, Cook said. EPA's Region 2 office and the New York Department of Waste Control have been informed of the problem, he said.
"Those agencies will be directly involved in any decision about whether the capacitors need to be removed or not," Cook said.
Clean Harbors has facilities to drain and ship liquid PCBs, so another possibility is the liquid waste was removed and disposed of appropriately somewhere along the way, Cook said, "but we don't have any indication that that happened."
Shipping records show the three large boxes of capacitors went from Paducah to Cincinnati, and then to Bristol, Conn., before arriving in New York, Cook said.
However, waste cargo lists and codes were different for each leg of the shipment. The term "liquid PCBs" on the front page of the manifest when the shipment left Paducah was no longer there when the cargo arrived in New York, Cook explained.
"Whether that description played a role in shipping this to New York rather than Port Arthur, Texas, and what happened on the receiving end, we just don't know yet," he said.
Federal law requires that liquid PCBs be incinerated rather than buried. Cook said that if the PCBs were buried in New York, they pose a danger to the surroundings, but digging them up could be more dangerous than leaving them alone.
A suspected carcinogen, PCBs are harmful particularly if ingested, and are known to build up in fatty tissue.
"We have other PCB shipments on hold until we resolve this," Cook said. "We have one shipment on hold now, but we've been moving quite a bit of this lately. It's one area of active waste-disposal operation."