Burning PCBs dangerous, antiquated: professor

By Tanya Collier Macdonald
Cape Breton Post
Fri. Mar. 4, 2005

Sydney - Burning sludge laced with PCBs is a dangerous and antiquated way of destroying contaminated material, says an incineration expert who spent 14 years researching waste management issues in several countries.

Prof. Paul Connett, who teaches at St. Lawrence University in New York, presented his views on incineration during a Sierra Club of Canada session in Sydney, Thursday evening. Connett also met with the Cape Breton Post earlier in the day. Burning 150,000 tonnes of sludge to get at 3.8 tonnes of PCBs doesnít make sense, said Connett. He recommends thermal disorption or solvent washing ó which doesnít propel as many harmful chemicals into the environment.

"The crudest chemistry is to burn it," said Connett. "The byproducts are formidable. Isolate it and concentrate it." Connett said heíd rather see the PCBs contained in a tank than mixed in tar pond sediment and incinerated.

"Itís the difference between theory and practice," he said, adding unless the incinerator runs perfectly all of the time, the byproducts are more harmful then the PCBs. "They may be able to do it well for one day but I havenít seen it done well everyday for 365 days of the year," said Connett.

He referenced several incinerators heís visited in other countries during his research and noted an accident in Japan in 1968, where more than 1,800 people were poisoned after ingesting contaminated rice oil. The rice oil contained a large amount of a particular PCB known as Kanechlor 400. It was believed that the PCB leaked from a heating pipe in a factory.

Connett recommends a "closed loop chemical system" that contains emissions until they are properly tested. "I think the best thing to do is find a better technology," he said. However, what no one wants to tell Sydney residents is, that no matter what technology is implemented, there will be some risk involved in cleaning up the toxic mess, he said. "The problem was 100 years in the making," said Connett. "There is no risk-free way of solving this problem. There will be risks."

When Connett visited the tar ponds and coke ovens Thursday morning, he said he was shocked to see how close people lived to the sites. "Protect the people first," he said.

Connett recommended that 10 per cent of the project cost be given to people who want to leave the area before work begins. "I donít see any of this money ($400 million) going directly to the people," said Connett.

The community should also have access to government funds to hire independent experts for a second opinion on government studies. That would be genuine public involvement, he said. "Integrity is the key." Connett, who said he was overwhelmed with the complexity of the issue, said that itís important Sydney isnít left with any other environmental legacies when the cleanup is done.

Itís been reported that the rotary kiln incinerator which is expected to be used to burn tar pond and coke ovens sludge will roll to a site on two to five flatbed trailers. The facility will then undergo a commissioning period during which the operating and control systems will be calibrated for the waste feed. Operation of the incinerator will be governed by the operating procedure established during calibration. The incinerator is expected to burn 15 tonnes per hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 250 days per year.

The Victoria Junction wash plant is listed as a possible site for the incinerator. Others are Phalen mine, North Head and public property adjacent to the municipal landfill in Sydney.