Costly Waste at Union Bridge

February 07, 1994

The mixed blessings of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls as they are known to scientists, are well documented. Like asbestos and DDT, the benefits of these compounds to mankind were immediately apparent and seemingly without disadvantage, leading to widespread and often uncontrolled use.

PCBs were widely used in industry for lubrication and insulation of electrical devices, because they are nonflammable and have a high electrical resistance. Then the chlorine-based chemicals were found to cause cancers in laboratory animals and liver damage to humans, leading to their virtual ban in 1979.

Remaining uses of PCBs are tightly regulated, as is disposal of these tricky hazardous substances. Many of the PCB-laced waste oils today come from equipment that was manufactured more than a decade ago.

The Lehigh Portland Cement Co. plant in Union Bridge, which burns waste oils, mistakenly got a delivery of 5,000 gallons of the contaminated stuff last fall. It was promptly mixed into a 200,000-gallon receiving tank with other oils before its hazardous nature was recognized.

That led the plant to discontinue burning any oil in the storage tank, leaving Lehigh with an expensive disposal problem much greater than that of the original contaminated load.

The state Department of Environment decided last month that the waste oil was sufficiently contaminated to be classified as a hazardous substance. It must be removed from the Union Bridge site.

Cemtech, L.P., the company hired by Lehigh to screen waste oil deliveries for its alternative fuel program at the cement plant's kilns, has been ordered to remove the contaminated waste. The Illinois firm will begin this month to ship the oil by rail to a hazardous materials incinerator in Utah, a facility with an exceptionally high combustion temperature that will break down and destroy the PCBs.

The incident underlines the need for extreme care in handling PCBs and for careful screening of waste oils that can contain the toxic compounds. The magnitude of the environmental consequences can quickly expand, along with the costs of safe disposal. But we can also credit prompt, responsible action by Lehigh and the state in halting the potentially dangerous burning of the tainted oil.

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