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PCBs: facts versus hype

Editorial appearing in the Seattle Times - April 10th 2000

The public fuss over 14 containers of old electric transformers and cans of oil on the Seattle docks defies common sense. As described by the Defense Department, the material that arrived here from Japan last week on the ship Wan He is not dangerous when handled properly. It should have been no problem to unload it and send it on its way to a licensed disposal site.

The fuss was all about PCBs, a type of chemical that is slow to break down and accumulates in the food chain. In high concentrations, PCBs are injurious to human health and cause cancer in animals. The material in the 14 containers was not, however, in high concentrations. It was listed as being between 1 and 50 parts per million, which is a low concentration fairly common here.

PCBs were manufactured in the United States from 1929 to 1977, mainly as a coolant ingredient in electric transformers. Transformers last many years; Puget Sound Energy says it is still taking out about 40 transformers per year with PCBs in the 1-to-50-ppm range.

Puget gets perhaps two per year with about 500 ppm, considerably more toxic than the stuff in the Wan He. The utility has special employees and equipment to handle these things and pass them on to a licensed disposal contractor. Old transformers with PCBs have been a problem for every utility, including Seattle's own City Light. City Light, for example, sends its PCB-laden transformers to a licensed incineration site in Utah.

The transformers on the Wan He were from a U.S. Army base in Japan. It is standard practice for the U.S. military overseas to send its waste home. In this case, it was supposed to be sent to Canada. Word got out that a shipload of "military waste" was on its way, and the Canadians went berserk. They didn't want any military waste. It came here, and was described in exaggerated media reports as containing "highly toxic PCBs."

Thus, some old transformers became one more political icon for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, who refused to lift the containers off the ship, and the Teamsters, who refused to truck them. They were showing off.

The Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange threatened to file a lawsuit to block the "import" of "toxic wastes." More showing off.

Critics have lambasted the Environmental Protection Agency for permitting the containers to be stored in Seattle for 30 days. Yet more showing off.

These were not glow-in-the-dark rods of plutonium. They were old transformers. Furthermore, they were U.S. property. It is America's responsibility to drain and incinerate the PCB-laden oil and store the shells in the United States.

They would not have been incinerated or stored here. They were supposed to move through here, that's all. That would have required some care and responsibility. Also, it would seem, some sense of proportion.


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