Hazardous waste company charges its rival with excessive mercury emissions into Gorge air
Two competing companies that handle hazardous waste are arguing over how much toxic pollution is being dumped into the Columbia River Gorge's air by a hazardous waste operation in Eastern Oregon.
One of the companies, TD*X, claims that the other company, Chemical Waste Management of the Northwest Inc., or ChemWaste, emits at least 2.1 tons of mercury vapors per year from its operations in Arlington. ChemWaste is owned by Waste Management, which also owns an adjacent landfill near Arlington. The site is located about 7 miles south of the Columbia River some 50 miles east of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Mercury is toxic to the central nervous system. The inhalation of mercury vapor can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA says no human data currently ties mercury exposure to cancer, but some forms of mercury have caused tumors in rats and mice.
Without "appropriate" limits on air emissions, TD*X said, the plant "is not protective of human health and the environment."
Though it has no sites in Oregon, TD*X says it operates "an essentially identical" plant near Corpus Christi, Texas. Both companies compete for a share of the nation's hazardous waste handling, storage and disposal business.
Last week, TD*X issued a 202-page report indicating that some hazardous waste disposal plants around the country, such as the one in Arlington, use inferior air pollution control systems and can emit more than a half-pound of mercury per day. These plants take in oil waste and then extract contamination before recycling the used oil.
Mercury is a known constituent of the crude oil wastes that are treated at many of these plants, including the one in Arlington. TD*X collected this data from several hazardous waste generators over a period of 10 years.
TD*X's data show that if the Arlington plant deployed a superior type of pollution control system known as the "maximum available control technology," it could reduce its mercury emissions by 99.5 percent. It said ChemWaste's mercury emissions are a "whopping" 7,360 times higher than necessary.
Jackie Lang, a ChemWaste spokeswoman, said TD*X "is attempting to raise issues that were reviewed extensively and fully vetted during the DEQ air permitting process," referring to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Lang acknowledged that the plant treats wastes contaminated with mercury, but denied that it emits mercury into the air.
"The fact is, the technology at this site was developed in consultation with the leading expert in the field," she said.
DEQ said it is preparing a detailed analysis of the allegations and a response to the Tribune's questions submitted last Thursday, Friday and Monday, but that wasn't ready by our presstime.
DEQ spokeswoman Jennifer Flynt said the agency believes it is properly enforcing the law and that ChemWaste's mercury emissions are minimal.
TD*X spokesman Carl Palmer said its data show that the plant also emits 33 tons of tiny particles to the air, consisting of cadmium, lead, selenium, antimony, arsenic, beryllium, chromium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and hydrochloric acid. Emissions of these metals at the Arlington plant may be nearly 500 times higher than they could be if better technology was deployed, he said.
These tiny particles can get permanently lodged in the lungs, where they can cause respiratory problems and possibly cancer.
The plant also treats wastes contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides, DEQ documents show.
ChemWaste's air pollution permit, which was issued in 2014 by the DEQ, allows the plant to emit unlimited amounts of dioxin, TD*X's report said. The permit is set to expire next February.
Dioxin is the most potent carcinogen found in industrial waste. If the plant used the strongest available pollution control equipment, it could limit its dioxin emissions to just .2 nanograms per year, a tiny amount, the report said.
TD*X said DEQ requires "no performance testing" of the air pollution equipment. TD*X also charged that the DEQ permit places no limits on the amount of mercury and other compounds the plant can emit.
A DEQ report says the plant has the potential to emit 12.27 tons of several kinds of toxic compounds per year. The report does not list mercury among those compounds.
The plant uses a quench system that removes "any mercury contaminants, if present," Lang said in a statement.
ChemWaste also uses equipment known as thermal oxidizers to remove contaminants, but the oxidizers are incapable of removing metals like mercury, she said.
"The process is essentially oil recycling," Lang said. "It's an innovative way to treat sediments from refinery storage tanks, for reuse."
ChemWaste's environmental protection system is designed to meet or exceed state and federal requirements, Lang said. "Waste Management's commitment is full compliance."
TD*X says the ChemWaste's permit exempts its plant from certain hazardous waste regulations. The company said that if DEQ required compliance with federal or state environmental regulations, its toxic emissions "would not be significant."
If TD*X's allegations are true, potential impacts to the scenic area's air quality could be significant, said Michael Lang, conservation director for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
"We are currently in the process of fact-gathering and it appears that TD*X's claim is accurate," Lang said. "I can say right now that Friends of the Columbia Gorge is concerned that the project would harm air quality in the Columbia River Gorge."
Lang said air in the Gorge "is already significantly degraded" by the urban pollution plume from the west, the Boardman coal-fired power plant east of Arlington, and smoke from forest fires throughout the region.
"The DEQ is supposed to review permits for their impacts on Gorge air quality. Permitting an unregulated source of hazardous air pollutants near the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and its communities seems reckless," he said.
Carl Palmer, a TD*X spokesman, said the EPA under President Donald Trump has been allowing states like Oregon to use inferior pollution control technology and ignore federal rules requiring hazardous waste handlers to use the maximum available control technology. He said the DEQ is following the EPA's lead on what kind of technology to allow.
Palmer said hazardous waste disposal companies can gain competitive advantages by using inferior air pollution control equipment. He said they can cut costs and offer better prices to customers while increasing the amount of pollution they emit.
Metro, the regional government in Portland, has asked the DEQ to investigate the situation, according to spokesman Jim Middaugh. Metro has a contract with Waste Management Inc., ChemWaste's owner, to send Portland's garbage to an adjacent landfill site in Arlington.
Stephanie Rawson, Metro's solid waste cleanup enforcement supervisor, asked DEQ for information about the types of waste handled by the plant, its air pollution permit, its air pollution controls and the types of pollutants it emits.
ChemWaste recently received a temporary hazardous waste permit from the DEQ allowing it to operate the plant. It subsequently applied for a modification of that permit.
"We are asking for permission to modify the site's permit by adding storage tanks and a waste water treatment system," Jackie Lang said. A public hearing on the modification was scheduled for Wednesday in Arlington. DEQ will accept public comments on the modification until Sept. 21.