Policy: Environment & Energy

Solving the PCB problem with cooperation instead of litigation

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Opinion,Ron Arnold,Columnists,EPA,Energy and Environment

What makes ordinary rain falling in the Delaware River toxic enough to violate Environmental Protection Agency rules? And how can the EPA allow recycling plants to use old newspapers contaminated with much larger amounts of the same toxic substance? And why should that generate a national crisis?

Doug Krapas told me that riddle because he’s the environmental manager of the Spokane, Wash., Inland Empire Paper Company, which uses old newspapers and magazines as a major component in its paper production.

Krapas said, “The ink used in newspapers contains PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls, health hazards and suspected carcinogens] which are inadvertently created in the pigment-making process, but allowed in small amounts. We remove the ink and highly treat the PCB content, so the small residual is mixed with the waste water and enters the Spokane River, where the rules change and we have a problem.”

Krapas explained, “When the EPA allows PCBs in products – from dyes used in clothing to paint and newspaper inks – the Toxic Substances Control Act maximum is 50 parts per million. The stuff coming in is legal.

“But in water – industrial waste water and municipal sewage plants – the Clean Water Act allows only 64 parts per quadrillion, more than 700 million times lower than allowed in our source materials. The PCBs in our effluent are extremely low – the equivalent of half an ounce in a billion gallons of water, but there’s no technology that can get it clean enough.

“That’s the ‘PCB Paradox’, a big disconnect in federal regulations.”

The EPA is headed toward the tough regulatory schemes required by the Clean Water Act. Abrupt change could bring disastrous fines and sudden catastrophic costs to city sewage treatment facilities, paper recyclers, landfills, composting companies, the printing industry - a huge slice of America's economy.

Lisa Rodenburg is associate professor in environmental chemistry at Rutgers in New Jersey. She's co-author of a new study of PCB-11 [there are 209 PCB varieties, all toxic in some degree], which was found in yellow dyes in printing inks, paper, paint and clothing.

Dr. Rodenburg recently appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" with details of that alarming discovery - researchers tested common consumer goods and found PCB-11 in yellow-printed clothing and in 15 out of 18 paper goods such as maps, glossy magazines, newspapers and more.

Rodenburg told viewers she did not want to alarm the public, then noted, “The PCBs get out of that printed material and they get into the air, so whether you like it or not everyone is breathing this stuff in.”

I called her for an explanation. “PCBs are banned,” Rodenburg said, “but for years they were used in hydraulic fluids, solvents, oils, paints, and many other common products. Yellow pigments are allowed to have small amounts of inadvertent PCB contamination, but it gets into the atmosphere and falls on everything. We should be aware, not terrified, and do something about it through the law.”

She is not aware of any medical cases directly attributable to PCBs, but she sent me eight toxicology studies that show we don’t want this stuff around.

“We have to face it,” Rodenburg said. “PCBs are now global. Ordinary rain falling into the Delaware River violates the Clean Water Act limit.”

We don't need a repeat of the predatory 1996 sue-and-settle Big Green attack demanding the EPA to force an “accelerated schedule to improve water quality” on the state of Delaware. The suit was brought by the American Littoral Society ($20,234,680 in grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Pew Charitable Trusts, and other agenda-laden foundations); the Delaware Riverkeeper Network ($1,676,423 from a dozen other foundations); and the Sierra Club, all looking for big lawyer fees.

A federally funded mediation effort thwarted the greenie “do-it-now” demands so the EPA settlement allowed a 10-year target for Delaware to do the necessary massive surveying and rulemaking. Rodenburg calls that settlement the “move in the right direction” approach that we need for PCBs.

By a first-class miracle, Doug Krapas found one of Rodenburg’s studies when his company discovered it had a PCB problem and called her. They saw things from the same “move in the right direction” perspective aimed at the source of the problem: pigments.

They agreed that any new rules should target pigments with PCBs, phasing out manufacture and imports with reasonable timelines to develop inks that don’t pollute. That was their regulatory strategy.

Krapas and Rodenburg began lobbying together, along with Spokane Riverkeeper attorney Rick Eichstaedt, first presenting their strategy to a conference of the Environmental Council of the States – an association of the nation’s top ranking state environmental agency leaders.

Another prominent Spokane environmental group joined them: the Land Council, with its executive director Mike Petersen, who helped push Inland Empire into recycling in 1990. Today he defends IEP, mindful that its societal good deed brought its PCB problem. It evokes “no good deed shall go unpunished.”

These leaders formed a coalition of industries, local and state governments, tribes, and environmental groups whose only payday is getting PCBs out of their waters without horrendous disruption. They know it takes time to purge chemicals and agree that targeting the source is the right direction.

This coalition exemplifies the National Environmental Policy Act’s goal of “productive harmony” – people putting their differences aside so they can do the right thing together.

PCB Paradox Coalition, America owes you folks their support and gratitude. May you be poor in misfortunes and rich in blessings - and get the EPA to do the right thing too.

RON ARNOLD, a Washington Examiner columnist, is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.
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