Environment

Much too hot not to handle

Wayne Clark,Robert Plaskin December 17 1979
Environment

Much too hot not to handle

Wayne Clark,Robert Plaskin December 17 1979

Much too hot not to handle

Environment

Wayne Clark

While the latest exiles in an age of chemicals, the 220,000 residents of Mississauga, Ontario, awaited permission to return to their homes last month; a machine in a van was monitoring the nightmare. A highly praised Canadian invention called the TAGA 3000, it told scientists exactly how much deadly chlorine gas was leaking from the derailed and ruptured chlorine tanker. Coincidentally, the same machine that would finally give authorities the assurance that Canada’s ninthlargest city could be safely reoccupied had been sitting in Mississauga before the explosive derailment. It was an unwelcome reminder of another ongoing battle against chemicals.

Only four days earlier, the Ontario government had hoped to use the TAGA 3000 in a test to prove that another deadly and related chemical—polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs—could be safely destroyed by incineration in a

cement kiln at the St. Lawrence Cement Company in Mississauga. Although Ontario sits precariously on an estimated 91 per cent of the 30 million pounds of PCBs that now await disposal in Canada, Mississauga council vetoed the test and passed a bylaw prohibiting the incineration, now or in the future, even if it were proved safe. By the end of the year, the Ontario government hopes to go to court in an attempt to have the bylaw invalidated and, in the process, it hopes to prevent other communities from passing similar “not-in-our-backyard” bylaws.

Although in use since 1929, PCBs have marked the ’70s like no other chemical. Around the world the dangers of this thin, clear, toxic, unpleasant-smelling liquid have been documented in chilling detail, under oceans, in the atmosphere, in the food chain and ultimately in peo-

ple. PCBs have been found to cause birth defects,nervous disorders,changes in liver function and cancer.

Scientists first began to discover the extreme toxicity of PCBs about 1966-67 while studying DDT, a related chemical. At the time PCBs were being used in thousands of products, everything from washable wall coverings, upholstery and fluorescent lights to ironing board covers, lipstick and the printing of color comics in newspapers. Soon those same newspapers were carrying the first of the horror stories.

In 1968, rice oil contaminated with PCBs was sold for human consumption in western Japan. Thirteen hundred people were poisoned, many died and for years the “rice-oil disease” caused miscarriages, stillbirths and births of babies pigmented brown. In 1973, a truck-train collision caused a 1,100-gallon spill in Dowling, Ontario, 28 miles northwest of Sudbury. It wasn’t until four years later, when traces of PCBs were found in the water table, that CP Rail, the company also involved in the Mississauga disaster, was ordered to clean up the spill.

In 1976, one of Canada’s largest spills, 1,500 gallons of PCBs, leaked from an electrical manufacturing plant in Regina but the public wasn’t told about it for two years, long after the provincial government had paved over the spill area. This year, in June, PCBs were found in Regina’s drinking water and testing began for PCBs in mothers’ milk. And in November, 1979, Newfoundland reported its 10th spill within a month. The province has also reported PCBs in fish, fish-eating birds, seals and rainfall.

It wasn’t until 1977 that production of PCBs was stopped. Except for their main use in electrical transformers, they are

now all but banned, and by next spring a federal law is expected to be in effect prohibiting the importation of PCBs into Canada for any reason whatsoever. Also in effect will be restrictions prohibiting their use as new filling or makeup fluid in transformer maintenance and associated equipment.

The battle, however, is far from over. Canada trucks its PCB-contaminated liquid wastes to the United States, but the border will be effectively blocked in May, 1980, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will close the

country’s last approved landfill site. As well as the 30 million pounds of PCBs now awaiting disposal, there are an estimated 40 million pounds still in use in Canada in electrical equipment, some of which has a life-span of 50 years, says John Monteith, chief of the regulations and compliance division of the contaminants control branch of Environment Canada.

The one method of destroying PCBs that has been proven effective and also economically feasible is to incinerate them at temperatures above 1,100°C. The only facilities immediately available, with minor modifications, are cement kilns, built to withstand temperatures up to 1,500°C required in the making of cement. Ontario government tests at the St. Lawrence plant in Mississauga have shown a destruction rate of 99.986 per cent, and the TAGA 3000 monitor was to be used last month to make the findings even more certain.

But Mississauga isn’t budging. The community is still smarting from the fact that the two years of previous government tests were conducted secretly. Mayor Hazel McCallion, who has said

that the train disaster at least put Mississauga on the map, doesn’t want the city on the map as a dumping site. Because of this resistance, the province has looked at 17 other potential disposal sites but won’t say exactly where because, as a spokesman for Environment Minister Harry Parrott told Maclean's, “I can tell you right now we’d sure as hell get the same reaction.”

Says John Monteith of Environment Canada: “We’ve got the technology. It’s all a local political problem at this stage. There’s a job to be done and if we don’t go ahead we’ll encourage the midnight dumper. It’s pretty obvious that will happen.” Mike Singleton, manager of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, which supports the Mississauga test burn, says the city’s only legitimate worry is the potential for accidents in transporting wastes. “There’s far more PCBs going down the sewers in Mississauga right now than would go up the stack in burning the entire quantity of PCB-contaminated wastes now sitting in Ontario.”

There are a number of alternatives to kiln incineration being developed in both Canada and the United States. The most recent breakthrough by Major Tom Barton and Guy Arsenault was announced last month by the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario. What started as research into means of destroying wastes aboard warships has led to a process that completely destroys toxic wastes such as PCBs. Through a plasma arc reactor which looks somewhat like a potbellied stove with a torch, temperatures of up to 50,000°C are used to cause PCB molecules to decompose instantaneously into atoms. The atoms then recombine into simple, nontoxic, gaseous products. All that remains is to prove conclusively that the small, contained volumes of product gases from destroyed PCBs are absolutely harmless.

But like most of the alternatives being developed, the RMC process requires at least six months to a year of further research before it can be marketed. Disposal must begin now, says Mike Singleton. “We have PCBs accumulated in old transformers and drums of every description sitting on pillars and posts all over the place and they’re finding their way out into the environment at an astonishing rate. And once that’s happened they can’t be recaptured for destruction.” Once free in the environment, PCBs are persistent. Not only do they break down very slowly, they are bio-accumulative, increasing in concentration as they move up the food chain. As an Ontario environment ministry official said at a recent seminar: “If we don’t get rid of this stuff soon, you and I are going to be eating it for breakfast.” Robert Plaskin