State clears its buildings of PCBs--almost on time

October 14, 1990|By Phillip Davis

Last Monday afternoon, a crane removed a 1 1/2 -ton steel-gray transformer in the basement of Jenkins Hall at Morgan State University -- and state officials sighed with relief. State-owned buildings, at least, were now officially free of toxic PCBs.

The state and other large power users had raced against an Oct. 1 deadline to remove all of their large, old electrical transformers that were once filled with hundreds of gallons of coolant laden with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) or risk fines of up to $25,000 a day.

"It was a little bit out of the routine," said Vander Harris, Morgan's director of physical services. There were transformers -- used to change the voltage of electricity -- in 17 buildings around campus, and some had to be literally cut out of their installations, because the behemoths were too large to move through any doorways.

"We were fortunate -- we had no spills or mishaps," Mr. Harris said. The deadline was missed by only a week, and no fine was assessed.

Once a common industrial chemical, PCBs were most often found in the oil-based coolant in transformers. The chemical has been linked to cancer, birth defects and reproductive disorders, and even a form of adult acne, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Moreover, PCBs persist for decades in the environment, accumulating in the tissues of fish and other animals that are eaten by humans. The chemical has been detected in babies who have consumed contaminated breast milk, said Ellen K. Silbergeld, a toxicologist at the University of Maryland medical school.

What is worse, when burned, PCBs produce dioxin, an even more toxic carcinogen, according to the EPA.

The EPA banned the use of PCBs in transformers in 1985 and gave operators of older transformers until Oct. 1 of this year to replace them with equipment that doesn't use the toxic chemical.

So over the past 18 months, the state has spent $6.4 million to remove its 292 PCB-filled transformers and replace them with new ones, said Joseph L. Hellman, capital project engineer for the state Department of General Services.

The removals were often complex. Eleven transformers in the State Office Building in Baltimore had to be removed by helicopter after workers cut holes in the buildings' roofs, Mr. Hellman said.

The only organization that rivals the state in its use of the toxic transformers is Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

BG&E spent about $7 million to remove 300 transformers scattered throughout the Baltimore region, said Stephen Pattison, who supervises the utility's chemical and waste management unit.

A large part of the cost was having the chemical destroyed -- usually by high-temperature incineration, he said. Then the carcasses of the old transformers were trucked to approved hazardous waste dumps in Ohio and other parts of the Midwest, where they were buried, he said.

Experts say it is difficult to determine how the removal of the carcinogen will affect the environment or the food supply.

"I'm confident . . . that levels are slowly declining in the environment," said John Ruggero, EPA chief of toxics enforcement for this region. "But the only people who really know how much has been removed are the companies doing the work."

"It is turning the corner," said Ms. Silbergeld. "Periodically, there's been a sampling of PCBs, and starting about two years ago, the levels started to go down."

But she added that PCBs were once so widely used that now, "all living things on the planet have PCBs in them. They will never go away completely."

No one knows how much of the chemical is still being used in transformers in smaller buildings and factories in the United States, said Bruce Covert of ENSR Operations, a Canton, Ohio, firm specializing in PCB removal.

Mr. Covert said his company had talked to a large number of commercial property owners around the country, and "surprisingly few were aware of the PCB regulations."

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