Waste Management, Inc. (WMI), the nation's largest and most aggressive toxic waste handling company, brought suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December, 1986, charging that EPA has illegally refused to issue permits for incineration of toxic wastes on ocean-going ships off the coast of New Jersey and elsewhere.
A subsidiary of WMI owns two incinerator ships built more than 10 years ago in the Netherlands. Available photos show the ships belching torrents of pitch black smoke, volcano-like, as they burn toxic wastes out of sight of land. For several years, WMI has been pressuring the EPA to issue a license to allow WMI to bring millions of gallons of wastes to the Gulf Coast or to the East Coast, where the wastes would be stored in tanks, piped onto incinerator ships and transported to sea, where, according to WMI, they would never be dumped overboard but would be burned. EPA has, so far withstood the pressure from WMI and has refused to issue permits. The agency's position is that permits cannot be issued until regulations have been established controlling ocean incineration.
WMI contends in its lawsuit that the EPA already has adequate regulations on the books to cover issuance of ocean incineration permits. EPA refused in May, 1986, to issue a test-burn permit to WMI because, the agency said, "important, legal, policy, and technical issues" about ocean incineration remain undecided.
In August, 1986, the federal Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) issued a report--more than 2 years in preparation--saying that as much as 8% of the nation's 250 million tons of hazardous wastes (annually) could, in theory, be incinerated in specially equipped ocean-going vessels but OTA said this would be an "interim solution" that should not replace recovery, recycling and reduction as long-term solutions to hazardous waste management. OTA concluded that "a specific need" for ocean incineration could not be demonstrated. Under the 1972 London Dumping Convention (an international agreement) and the 1972 U.S. Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, any permit for dumping wastes at sea must demonstrate the need for such dumping.
The OTA said that one ocean-incineration ship would add 1800 kilograms (3960 pounds, or about two tons) of PCBs to the ocean each year if it burned at 99.99% efficiency (a standard the EPA proposed in 1985). The OTA pointed out that roughly 9000 kilograms (19800 pounds, or nearly 10 tons) of PCBs enter New York bight, a part of the Atlantic Ocean, each year from sewage dumping, effluent from wastewater treatment plants, and from other sources. EPA has recently proposed standards requiring incineration efficiency of 99.9999%, which would permit only 18 kilograms of PCBs to enter the ocean annually from an incineration ship.
The OTA report said ocean incineration might be the preferable alternative for certain highly-chlorinated compounds, such as PCBs, because land-based incinerators would require expensive scrubbers to protect public health during incineration of such materials. The OTA said the lack of requirement for scrubbers on ocean incineration ships "appears justified" SO LONG AS OPERATING CONDITIONS AND WASTE TYPES ARE TIGHTLY REGULATED.
Critics of WMI point out that the company has an unparalleled record of breaking environmental laws in many parts of the United States; they say therefore the company cannot be trusted to comply with any ocean incineration regulations. They also point out that the EPA often winks at violations of the law by this particular company, imposing fines that are a small fraction of the profits the company has earned by breaking the law. Chemical Waste Management, the subsidiary of WMI that would operate the incinerator ships, showed profits in 1986 of $52.2 million, an increase of 104% over 1985's $25.6 million in profits.
In recent years, citizen protests have had a major effect on public policy regarding ocean incineration. Over 6400 people attended the EPA's public forum on ocean incineration, held in Brownsville, Texas, in 1983; it was the biggest public meeting the EPA had ever experienced, and shortly thereafter the Agency denied Waste Management's application for a permit for a test burn in the Gulf. In 1986, more than 3000 people attended four EPA hearings along the East Coast, and again EPA denied the company's permit for a test burn off the New Jersey Coast.
In its December, 1986, lawsuit, brought in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, WMI asked the judge for a "summary judgement"--requesting the judge to rule immediately on the legal issues without getting into the merits or substance of the arguments over ocean incineration. WMI is asking the court to force EPA to either issue a permit for ocean incineration under existing regulations or to issue new regulations within 30 days.
The 223-page OTA report is available from Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC 20402; phone (202) 783-3238; price: $11. Ask for document No. 052-003-01046-1.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: wmi; epa; lawsuits; permits; hazardous waste; ocean incineration; incineration; office of technology assessment; london dumping convention; us marine protection, research and sanctuaries act; pcbs; oceans; pollution; water pollution; regulations; chemical waste management, inc; cwmi;