Wasteful Problem, Hazardous Solutions
Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Wasteful Problem, 'Hazardous Solution', Chain Reaction, Summer 1987-88, pp13-15.
This is a final version submitted for publication.
There is considerable debate within the environmental movement over whether environmentalists should support the establishment of a high temperature incinerator in Australia. It seems that governments are dependent on this support to be able to site such a facility. Previous attempts have been thwarted by protests from local communities who do not want a high temperature incinerator and all the accompanying hazardous traffic in their vicinity.
On the one side, environmentalists argue that the storage of intractable wastes poses a potential hazard which responsible environmentalists should help solve. For this reason they support the construction of an incinerator and will lobby to make such a facility is as environmentally sound as possible.
Here Sharon Beder argues that the establishment of a high temperature incinerator in Australia to burn intractable wastes will be counterproductive to the ultimate goal of minimising hazardous waste generation. I will also be pointing out some of the risks associated with high temperature incinerators and explaining why the short-term risks involved with the storage of intractable wastes are preferable to the long term risks associated with the continual waste production which will occur if industry is helped to solve this problem in a way that does not alert the public to the folly of indiscriminate industrial growth.
THE INCINERATOR AS AN INCENTIVE FOR WASTE PRODUCTION
The establishment of a high temperature incinerator in Australia to destroy intractable wastes such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB's) and hexachlorobenzene (HCB) will provide industry with a relatively cheap solution to some of its more worrying waste disposal problems. At present intractable wastes which are generated by industry must be stored as there is no environmentally safe way of disposing of them.
The storage of intractable wastes poses an ever increasing and on-going cost to industry as wastes take up more and more space and are subject to higher and higher insurance premiums. ICI Australia which generates most of Australia's intractable wastes (76%) and is responsible for the largest part of Australia's existing stockpile of these wastes, has been forced to spend considerable amounts of money on research aimed at minimising their wastes. This research would not have been undertaken if a high temperature incinerator was available.
Until the mid-1970s ICI Australia directed its research and development towards recycling liquid wastes from its Ethylene Dichloride (EDC) Plant. By 1977 2400 t/year of liquid organochlorine compounds from the EDC plant were being recycled. There remained a stock of 1500 t of liquid waste which had been produced before the recycling operation and was unsuitable for recycling. This was incinerated by the incinerator ship, `Vulcanus' which was chartered for a once off visit in 1982. (Cumming, 1986; 103)
ICI was still, in 1977, producing 600 t/year of a heavy tarry liquid waste and the heavy ends material from the Solvents plant was also accumulating. Further research lead to the establishment of a heavy ends treatment plant in 1977 to recycle the liquid portion of the waste from the solvents plant leaving only the solid hexachlorobenzene (HCB) and in 1983 a thin film evaporator facilitated the recycling of a further 350 t/year of liquid waste. A flash evaporator was planned for 1987 to recover the rest of the liquid waste. (Cumming, 1986; 103)
ICI Australia has therefore been forced to solve its liquid waste problem in a way that its operations overseas have not because a high temperature incinerator was not available. Rather than recycling the liquid waste from EDC Plants overseas, high temperature incinerators were just slotted onto the end of the manufacturing process. At present ICIA is directing research towards solving the remaining problem of the solid HCB waste. An ICI spokesman stated in 1986 that
During the 1970's and early 1980's HTI [high temperature incineration] was regarded as the most appropriate disposal option for both technical and economic reasons. The economic justification is not so obvious now by comparison with recycling processes. (Cumming, 1986; 104)
ICI may not come up with an ecologically sound alternative for dealing with HCB's or a more efficient process which eliminates the production of these hazardous wastes, but one thing is for certain, once a high temperature incinerator is made available, the research will stop. An incinerator will remove any incentive there may now be for recycling intractable industrial by- products, for changing manufacturing processes that will minimise their production and for seeking out substitute products which can be made without creating hazardous by-products.
An incinerator would not only act as a disincentive for research, but there is some evidence that it would compete directly for industrial by-products. A high temperature incinerator is associated with high capital costs and running costs. It is only economical if it operates constantly. Some waste disposal operators in the US have expressed concern that high temperature incinerators may face shortages of, and competition for, wastes as energy and resource costs increase and recycling becomes more viable.
The establishment of an incinerator, by keeping the price of the related industrial products down, may also challenge the economic viability of new substitute products which could be competing with products like those from ICI's Solvents Plant in the near future. Substitute refrigerants and solvents which do not rely on chlorine for a feedstock would not only overcome the problem of creating intractable organochlorines as by-products but would also be less threatening to the planet's ozone layer and climatic balance.
RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH A HIGH TEMPERATURE INCINERATOR
Proponents of the establishment of a high temperature incinerator in Australia are careful not to mention any of the uncertainties or risks associated with such a facility. Rather they emphasise the burning efficiencies that are possible given unlimited amounts of money and ideal conditions. Environmentalists who want to promote incineration should at least inform themselves of the risks and be openly public about them if they are to retain any integrity. Combustion is largely an uncontrolled chemical reaction and it is conceivable for any organic material to be formed, especially when feedstocks are not pure. An Australian incinerator is likely to be fed with impure liquids and mixtures of chemicals. Moreover, it is not just the composition of the input which is of concern. All variables, including the rate of input, must be kept relatively constant if high processing efficiency is to be achieved. For this reason, the solid HCBs generated by ICI are a problem since they cannot be fed into the incinerator in a smooth continuous flow as a liquid could be. (Cumming, 1986; 103).
Problems are created if all the waste is not burnt uniformly at a high temperature. In particular, a molecule trapped in a particulate matrix may not be heated to the incinerator temperature or attacked by a reactive radical (Tsang & Shaub, 1982; 55). This is significant because new compounds may be formed during incineration if combustion is not complete. For example, if PCB's are not burnt at high enough temperatures, dioxin is formed and this substance, which is even more toxic than the PCB's, would be released into the atmosphere.
Scrubbers do not solve this problem. The scrubbers associated with incinerators are designed to prevent the simpler compounds formed as a by-product of incineration, such as hydrogen chloride (HCl) from being emitted. Incinerators with pollution control devises have not been shown to consistently and effectively destroy or remove organic hazardous constituents from stack emissions (Greenberg & Anderson, 1984; 35). Moreover, substances containing volatile metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic form fumes which are difficult to remove (Wilson, 1981; 390).
It should also be noted that the fundamental combustion characteristics of chlorinated hydrocarbons are not completely understood. It is known, however, that some chlorinated compounds can produce intermediate species that are more stable than the parent chlorinated hydrocarbon molecules. (Exner, 1982; 90) Not only can the ash and the waste sludge from the stack scrubber contain hazardous components (Piasecki, 1984; 118) but also the emissions consist of extremely fine particles that can be extremely dangerous because they can be carried huge distances whilst suspended in the air and are small enough to penetrate the natural defenses of our lungs (Miller, 1982, p424).
Past experience overseas has shown that imcomplete combustion is commonplace. Chlorinated dibenzofurans and dioxin have been identified in stack gases in low concentrations when PCB's are burned and there have been reports of ill-health downwind of high temperature incinerators. For example, at Bonnyridge in Scotland concern was expressed after an unusual number of cases of rare congenital eye deformity were identified in babies born in the vicinity. Similarly at Pontypool in South Wales, several cases of other types of uncommon congenital eye malformations were discovered. (Pearce, 1985)
At Bonnyridge, there was also an increased rate of cancer amongst people and an unusual number of deaths, illnesses and birth deformities, including blindness, amongst local cattle. A local farmer claimed the symptoms suffered by his cattle were very similar to those suffered by animals given feed contaminated with a relation of PCB, PBB's in Michigan, US. Dioxins and furans were found in soil from his farm, milk and fat samples from his cattle. (Pearce, 1985)
Government reports have found that neither incinerator is to blame. The increase in cancer since the mid-1970s was said to be due to changes in diagnostic proceedures; more notification of cancers by doctors and "chance". The reports admitted the "unusual state of morbidity" amongst cattle but argued that it was unusual because of the numbers that had died rather than because the diseases contracted were unusual. (Pearce, 1985)
The promise that an incinerator will burn to 99.99% or higher efficiencies is not as certain as it sounds since standardised monitoring procedures are still being developed. Moreover less harmful by-products such as carbon monoxide are monitored as an indicator of combustion efficiency rather than the whole range of compounds that are of concern all being monitored. (Piesecki, 1984; 177)
The risks associated with the storage of intractable wastes are also very real, although not necessarily greater than those of incineration combined with transport of wastes from all over Australian to a central national high temperature incinerator. There are two major differences however. The risks associated with an incinerator concern a continuous emission and are concerned with the health effects from the everyday operation of a facility rather than, as in the case of storage, the possibility of an accident.
Secondly, and more importantly, an accident at a storage facility, be it a fire or a flood, is immediately obvious to everyone. Action can be taken, blame can be sourced. An accident or a continual dangerous emission at an incinerator is invisible and, as in the case of Bonnyridge, can be denied. The people who are the victims of such emissions are in the situation of suspecting the cause but being unable to get redress, or support; of having the whole thing ignored, hushed up and denied.
A major chemical accident makes headlines and becomes a social problem; a miscarried baby, even if it is the tenth that month in the town, is seen as a personal problem. A major chemical accident causes questions to be asked about the generation of hazardous waste and a reappraisal of our way of doing things; no one wants to know about an unproven health risk in a remote locality from a facility that is they are told is necessary. The dangers or faulty operation of such a facility are too easily hidden.
It is only when everyone becomes painfully aware of the stores of intractable wastes all over the city that the real costs of our industries will be weighed against the increasingly marginal benefits of economic growth. Whilst the environmental costs of our affluent lifestyles remain hidden, they will never be fully taken account of. If the politicians are looking to environmentalists to come up with a solution to hazardous waste problems, surely our first priority must be the longterm minimisation of wastes rather than a short-term technological fix that will allow everyone to breath easier for a while. (But not too deeply!)
Cumming, T.M.(1986). Do we need a high temperature incinerator in Australia:
An industry view. Clean Air. Vol 20/3: 102-104.