Friday, June 20, 2008

Tons of PCBs May Come Calling at a Down-at-the-Heels Texas City

Michael Stravato for The New York Times

A petrochemical plant as seen from a housing project in Port Arthur, Tex. Activists are opposed to a company’s request to burn PCBs from Mexico at its incinerator.


Correction Appended

PORT ARTHUR, Tex. — This downtrodden chemical town on the Gulf of Mexico has no shortage of nicknames: Cancer Alley, the Armpit of Texas, Ring of Fire.

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The New York Times

PCBs from Mexico could be incinerated near Port Arthur.

Built on a gush of oil wealth, Port Arthur eventually wooed chemical and waste plants as well. But since the 1970s, this city, which is majority African-American, has complained that it has become a dumping ground for the nation’s toxic waste.

Now, if a French-owned waste management company has its way, the Port Arthur area will be the final destination for 40 million pounds of toxins from Mexico.

“Bring it all to southeast Texas,” Hilton Kelley, a community activist, said wryly. “Who’s next? Germany? Finland? England? Aren’t our oil refineries and chemical plants enough? We have a right to a clean environment, and the nation sees us as expendable in the name of big business.”

Despite a federal ban on importing PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, the company, Veolia Environmental Services, has asked the Environmental Protection Agency for an exemption to move the chemicals by truck from Mexico and to burn them at its incinerator just outside Port Arthur. The incinerator has been disposing of the United States’ PCB waste since 1992.

In March, the E.P.A. gave tentative approval to the proposal. A final decision is expected after August.

On Thursday, the agency will conduct a public hearing featuring all of the players, from incinerator lobbyists to local leaders, who have pledged to sue if the exemption is granted.

The mayor of Port Arthur, Delores Prince, has not taken a position on the proposal, saying that the incinerator is outside the city limits and that the exemption is a federal matter.

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and an expert on waste incineration who is not involved in the case, called the situation in Mexico an “immediate environmental risk.”

Dr. Hershkowitz defended the concept of accepting PCBs from Mexico, saying that proper incineration would be better than leaving the toxins where they were, in temporary facilities.

“This is not about Americans versus Mexicans,” he said, “but about protecting what’s most at risk for Homo sapiens and eco-regions.”

Still, Dr. Hershkowitz and other environmental experts said Port Arthur, with a population of about 58,000 people, faced a legitimate risk of exposure to PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, brain and liver damage, skin rashes and harmful effects to the reproductive system. And he questioned whether the incinerator, given its record, could do the job safely.

PCBs are used as a coolant in electric generators, although they were banned from manufacturing in 1979. No private companies have applied to import them into the United States since 1996.

Officials at Veolia said their incinerator had a 99.99999 percent efficiency rating, reflecting the percentage of PCBs that the process destroys. Veolia employees receive annual blood tests for PCBs, and the company said no problems had been found.

“We’re in the business of destroying waste,” said Daniel Duncan, the plant’s environmental, health and safety manager. “It’s better to destroy these here than let them go unaddressed down in Mexico.”

PCBs from Mexico are now exported to Europe at three times the cost, Mr. Duncan said. He declined to estimate the value of a contract to dispose of the PCBs.

Environmental groups cite dozens of reported problems with Veolia’s incinerator and insist that incineration in general, the oldest and most widely accepted means of disposal, is imperfect.

Dr. Neil Carman, director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, who is leading the fight against Veolia, said PCBs were so dangerous that even small doses of the 40 million pounds that the company wanted to transport here would significantly add to the health problems in Port Arthur. Jefferson County, where Port Arthur is located, has a cancer rate about 20 percent higher than the state average.

No one disputes that PCBs are dangerous.

In 1981, an electrical fire spread PCBs throughout a state building in Binghamton, N.Y., resulting in a 13-year, $53 million cleanup.

And since 2002, General Electric has been under a federal order to clean approximately 40 miles of the Hudson River where its factories discharged PCBs.

By 2025, all electric transformers with PCBs must be out of service in the United States, a regulation that is likely to keep the Veolia incinerator busy.

PCB disposal is a divisive issue, partly because there are no continuous monitoring devices in the United States for PCBs, an odorless and colorless compound. Veolia’s efficiency claims are based on test burns, which are conducted every five years.

Dr. Carman, who conducted emissions tests for the state for 12 years, said the tests were “a crude measure under ideal conditions.”

Ideal or not, the Veolia incinerator has an “average” compliance history, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The company, which has spent $22 million since 2002 upgrading its incinerator to comply with tougher standards of the Clean Air Act, reported 70 deviations, or faulty occurrences, from 2006 to 2008. That included 30 reports of carbon monoxide emissions, a standard indicator of poor combustion, in six months in 2006.

That same year, according to the federal Toxics Release Inventory, an E.P.A. database, the company emitted the most toxins in the United States. But Mr. Duncan attributed that finding to a bookkeeping error, and the company has submitted an amended report.

Dr. Hershkowitz, who reviewed Veolia’s violations, called the incinerator “routinely and disturbingly substandard.”

Opponents said they were baffled as to why the Mexican companies responsible for the PCBs, mainly the utility company CFE, had not pursued more eco-friendly disposal alternatives, like portable incinerators, which they say are cheaper and have been used in Canada and may soon be used in Vietnam to destroy toxins from the defoliant Agent Orange.

The E.P.A., however, said portable incineration could not handle the PCBs from Mexico.

Although the most common wind currents blow emissions from the incinerator away from Port Arthur, Mr. Kelley said that was little comfort.

“We don’t want to set a precedent in this community, where we are set up and prepared to take toxic waste from the world,” he said. “It’s not fair to children, or to me.”

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