East Carbon, Carbon County • The proposed solution for this small city’s budget troubles, as well as the financial bind facing the landfill business that provides much city revenue, is a big problem for some local residents.
So while city leaders back ECDC Environmental’s effort to put waste contaminated with toxic PCBs in its massive landfill, a cadre of locals has mounted a campaign to stop it.
What are PCBs?
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are human-made organic chemicals that were manufactured for a half-century until they were banned in 1979. Because they are non-flammable, chemically stable, have a high boiling point and provide good electrical insulation, PCBs were used widely in electrical, heat transfer, and hydraulic equipment; as plasticizers in paints, plastics, and rubber products; in pigments, dyes, and carbonless copy paper; and many other industrial applications.
People exposed to high concentrations of PCBs and their more hazardous forms, as in fish fat, can experience adverse health effects. PCBs are a probable human carcinogen and have serious non-cancer health impacts in animals, affecting the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
"I want 30 years of my life left, not 10," says Janice Hunt, a coal mine worker who was recently laid off. "I want to see my grandkids grow up."
"Our way of life is going to be gone," adds Kent Pilling, a retired miner whose family ranch is tucked into a canyon just below the landfill’s southern border. "The natural resources are gone; they’re all mined out. Our water, our air — that’s all that’s left, and now they’re goin’ to take that."
Although the opponents have protested loudly ever since they learned about the plan late last year, the plan looks almost certain to go forward.
Regulators at the Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been reviewing ECDC’s request to build a new section of its 3,078-acre landfill for PCBs, an industrial chemical that was widely used before its manufacture was banned in 1979. And they hope to finalize a permit change in a few weeks that will allow ECDC to begin going after hundreds of lucrative PCB contracts nationwide.
John Brink, who manages EPA’s regional pollution prevention and toxics unit, says his office is scrutinizing the plan to make sure the PCBs stay in the landfill and don’t drift into town in the water, soil or airborne dust. Although they are not, in strict regulatory jargon, a "hazardous waste," they certainly can be dangerous, says Brink.
"The building up of PCBs in our bodies is not good for us," he notes, pointing to EPA’s determination that it can cause many adverse health impacts. "And that’s why EPA regulates them the way we do."
PCBs are regulated under law for dangerous substances, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, along with harmful substances like asbestos and lead-based paints.
When officials have insisted in public meetings that PCBs are not hazardous, Brink says, "I don’t think [officials] are trying to tell anybody this is something to be casual about."
Roy Van Os is poring over the dozens of public comments on ECDC’s plans at the state’s solid and hazardous waste office.
He notes that polychlorinated biphenyls are ubiquitous in modern life, that people are exposed to them — without harm — every day. After examining the studies, he’s concluded, "It’s a risk, but it’s a such a low risk."
The draft permit he’s written for the project would require ECDC to keep roads PCB-free by washing the trucks that carry it, to cover trucks and trains filled with contaminated waste and to bury the waste under clean fill every day. Water monitoring would be stepped up, and new air monitoring would be established to make sure tainted dust doesn’t blow into residential areas about a mile away.
"There are some things we do in life that expose us to risk," he says. "Some of those we accept. Some of those we don’t."
City Councilman David Maggi said he led opposition to the landfill when it was proposed 20 years ago, but he came to see the value in it, especially with the good-paying jobs it offers and the annual revenues from tipping fees that were estimated to be about $5 million annually by about this time.
A lifelong East Carbon resident, he even worked there for a time after working in the nearby mines for 30 years. And now he sees no problem with the PCB proposal, given that he’s been around PCBs — which were widely used for a half-century as coolants, insulating fluids, lubricants and coatings like paint.
"Do I fear PCBs? No," he says. "Am I afraid of regulated garbage? No."
Orlando LaFontaine, a New York transplant and East Carbon mayor, says he understands the wariness about the PCBs — he’s the father of four young children — but he’s also got the community’s economic well-being to consider. Too many people in his town of 1,700 are already beaten down by the bad economy and can’t afford to bear any new expenses.
"We’re concerned, of course," he says. "But the cards are being dealt to us by the state and the federal government."
He points out that state regulations allow low-concentration PCBs to be buried in ordinary landfills, and that an independent review contracted by the city put the risk at 1/1,000th the level considered harmful by the EPA. And as long as ECDC handles the waste properly, the city isn’t in a position to object.
"It’s not up to us," he says. "There’s no vote I can make."Next Page >
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