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Travelin' Trash

Daily Press - 1 July 2004

Folks who get their trash bags in a tangle over Virginia importing out-of-state garbage should consider this: Virginia exports trash, too - really nasty stuff.

Consider the trash, to use the word lightly, being generated by a Chesapeake yard scrapping old vessels from the James River ghost fleet. Done under rigorous environmental controls and monitoring, the work requires that all hazardous materials be carefully collected and disposed of, so none gets into the environment.

To New York go the PCBs, probably the most dangerous of the materials reclaimed from the ships because they are carcinogenic and also, in animals, interfere with immune systems, reproduction and neurological
development. Paint scrapings that include lead, a highly toxic metal, are shipped off to a hazardous material landfill in Pennsylvania.That's because not a single landfill in Virginia has a permit to dispose of hazardous material. Two Virginia landfills do take the asbestos from the ships, because once it's securely contained, it's not considered hazardous.

But here's what it comes down to: We take New York's coffee grounds and chicken bones and used diapers, and we give them long-lived cancer-causing PCBs.

The Bush administration wants to send some of our toxic offal even farther from our borders - which raises the risk it will end up in places where the environmental controls are not so scrupulous. The U.S. Maritime Administration is trying to send 13 derelicts from the ghost fleet - which harbor a nasty swill of PCBs, fuel, oil and heavy metals - to England for scrapping, only to have its plans stymied (temporarily?) by environmental concerns that led to court challenges. MARAD's move might surprise those who know that the United States has a law banning export of PCBs - but not, perhaps, its success in getting the Environmental Protection Agency to waive the law.

Environmentalists' big fear is that the Bush administration really wants to send scrapping work, and the hazards it entails, to China. The Navy tried to do just that but ran afoul of that law banning PCB exports. MARAD denies any plans to scrap ships in China, but the fact that it sent officials to check out Chinese facilities is evidence
that the administration has been interested in this option.

Yes, Virginia imports a lot of trash: 6.6 million tons in 2003, or about one-fourth of all solid waste handled in Virginia facilities. Some rural counties have found gold in that garbage, revenue to build schools and fund services. Folks trying to ban this import are worried about the trash trucks it puts on roads, the potential risks
of the barges soon to come, and the dangers even the new generation of landfills could pose in the future.

But knowing what we export kind of puts a new perspective on the trash wars.

Copyright © 2004, Daily Press

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