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Hazardous waste for years dumped illegally at Harrisburg incinerator, DEP documents reveal
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Hazardous waste for years was illegally processed and improperly disposed at the grounds of the Harrisburg incinerator, documents on file with Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection reveal.
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Much of the harmful and long-lived hazardous waste was received, and its dangerous ash improperly disposed, without legal permits from state and federal environmental authorities, records also show.
The practice continued, the documents suggest, unabated for years, and over decades. The problem remains unaddressed, and is even denied, by incinerator officials.
As late as September 2012, incinerator officials denied to citizens and Dauphin County Commissioners alike that hazardous waste exists, or ever existed, at the site.
Whether hazardous waste exists at the incinerator grounds is an important question, for several reasons.
Hazardous waste, by definition, has to be cleaned up. The purchaser of the facility may have to pay to locate and properly dispose of the hazardous waste.
The incinerator is up for sale to the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority in a bond deal meant to bail out Harrisburg's previous bad bond debt.
But the toxic waste may be hidden in 12 acres of incinerator ash. Or, the toxins may have migrated off site in groundwater, or have been blown away by wind.
The documents, and the record, tell a chilling story of outrageous environmental crimes that perhaps are ongoing, and remain unaddressed.
Notations, citations, and warnings of dangerous unaddressed "hazardous waste" conditions at the Harrisburg incinerator permeate the facility's document file at the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
As far back as 1980, a Notification of Hazardous Waste Activity at the incinerator was filed with the EPA. Another information sheet from that era informs the EPA that the facility "does or will dispose of hazardous waste."
But the existing documentation was poor, incomplete, or sloppily produced. This was during the administration of late Mayor Paul "Tim" Doutrich, a haberdasher who was a notably poor administrator. Mayor Doutrich's top political crony and backer, Jack Karper, ran the incinerator in those years. Paperwork was not a forte of either Doutrich or Karper. (Karper died in 1999.) This would set a trend for coming years, and decades.
In December 1981, the city placed a legal notice in the Pennsylvania Bulletin to inform the public of the "operation of a hazardous waste disposal facility" at the incinerator.
A 1981 DER inspection report notes, "There have been several hazardous waste streams accepted at this facility which have not been approved by the department before acceptance."
Documents from 1981 show the facility accepted phosphates, zinc, and hazardous waste liquids, including "hazardous waste toxic lead," farm waste, waste oil, spent sulfuric acid, and "hazardous solid waste."
Paperwork not a forte: Harrisburg Mayor Paul 'Tim' Doutrich, circa 1978. Photo by Bill Keisling
Also in 1981, a DER "hazardous waste inspection report," found the incinerator in non-compliance for accepting hazardous waste from non-licensed haulers.
In 1982, engineering firm Gannett Fleming was hired by the city to "determine the permit status of the Harrisburg incinerator to receive and process hazardous waste." The engineers wrote the city's new public works director that, "The incinerators were never permitted to receive and process hazardous waste."
There was no pertinent information in city files, the December 1982 Gannett Fleming letter explains, so the engineers contacted the EPA. "We were advised that the City in 1980 filed notification and Part A to qualify the incinerator as a hazardous waste facility," the engineers wrote. "However, both documents were submitted after expiration of the respective filing dates. As a result, Region III EPA did nothing more than hold the documents in file."
Still, the engineering firm reviewed invoices and other documents filed with the city, and determined, "This information does indicate that certain toxic wastes may have been handled at the incinerator site. In a few instances, wastes were identified as containing hazardous constituents (such as cadmium); in other instances wastes were identified as having originated from specific sources (such as paint sludge) generally considered to generate hazardous waste. However, there is no indication of quantities received, handling procedures, incinerator operating conditions, or even if the wastes were actually incinerated."
Gannett Fleming's engineer concluded, "The information we reviewed indicates that there is a strong probability that hazardous wastes were incinerated." Even so, "There is no indication that the incinerators were ever permitted to dispose of hazardous wastes, ...nor was the facility designed to process hazardous wastes."
In other words, the city was told by its own engineering consultant that in all likelihood the facility had been illegally accepting and processing hazardous wastes for years. These practices apparently would also continue for years.
Licensed or not, there's plenty of documentation that the city accepted, and continued to accept, hazardous waste at the facility through the 1980s.
Truck dwarfed by Mount Ashmore in 1980s
In July 1985, the state DER wrote the incinerator's director concerning, for example, "the historical and present non-compliant status of the Harrisburg Incinerator facility with respect to the permit conditions and design criteria of the residue disposal sites (i.e. the ash piles - editor). The existing condition of the Residue Disposal Sites A and B-1 causes concern for their potential impact on human health and the environment." The city was told by the environmental agency that it must perform a "hazardous waste determination."
A document filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency following a state inspection in 1987 identifies the Harrisburg incinerator facility as a "Potential Hazardous Waste Site."
"Potential exists for contamination of soil and/or ground water," the EPA site assessment form reads, due to "Toxic residue from incineration ash."
At this time, the EPA was told by the state, there was a danger of heavy metals like lead and cadmium "in bottom and fly ash," buried at the incinerator site.
The document cites "Possible long term health effects due to exposure to the ash." The EPA was also alerted to "Possible groundwater contamination," and "Possible contamination of surface water due to run-off."
The area was potentially contaminated because, "Bottom and fly ash has been deposited onto the ground" at the site. It was "Possible for persons to make direct contact with the ash," the report relates.
Another concern was that the toxic waste could migrate offsite. There was "Potential for contamination of gardens," the EPA was told.
As well, the poisons could move "Toward the Susquehanna River."
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, records show, the DER continued to cite the city for these and other environmental violations involving hazardous waste, including waste and ash containing high concentrations of heavy metals like lead and cadmium, and even infectious medical waste.
In 1988, records show, the city knew it had a hazardous waste problem, as it sent samples of its toxic sludge to the Envirite Corporation, seeking a method to remove the toxic chemicals, and so to hopefully have the waste "delisted" as hazardous.
"Our analyses have shown that these wastes can be delisted by our Envirite treatment service," the company wrote back. "Treatment to delist removes your RCRA (EPA's 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) liabilities because your waste will no longer be chemically or legally recognized as hazardous." It's not clear what happened with this plan.
‘Rather than actually deal with the problem by cleaning up the ash piles, the city played games into the 1990s with ash testing procedures to attain non-hazardous waste samples from the vast acres of ash piles at the incinerator’
What is clear is that, rather than actually deal with the problem by cleaning up the ash piles, and no longer accepting hazardous waste, records show, the city played games into the 1990s with ash testing procedures to attain non-hazardous waste samples from the vast acres of ash piles at the incinerator. As they say in the environmental cleanup business, "There's got to be a clean sample in there somewhere."
The city also used lawyers to fight the legal designation of the acres of waste ash on site as expensive-to-dispose-of hazardous waste.
On April 20, 1990, DER wrote the city that "certain batches of ash generated by the City's (incinerator) can be characterized as hazardous waste under state law, and thus must be disposed of as a hazardous waste."
The city's attorney, Howard Wein, on October 19, 1990, wrote the DER that, "The city believes that the ash from the Facility is exempt under law from regulation as hazardous waste," and that, "the cost of disposing the ash as a hazardous waste is exorbitant."
It wasn't only the city that wanted to escape expensive legal and other costly problems associated with hazardous waste designation. A 1989 letter from the attorney for a nearby, off-site car wash informed the city that the owner did not wish to have his car wash well water tested for contaminants from the incinerator.
Elsewhere, documents reveal, Harrisburg and environmental officials alike express relief that most homes and businesses near the incinerator relied on city water, and not wells, and so occupants were perhaps less likely to ingest toxins. The worst of the toxins, environmental officials hoped, would simply take a direct route through groundwater to the river.
By 1993, the city would go so far as to blame the environmental agencies for the growing and unresolved list of environmental and economic problems at the incinerator.
"Ironically," city consultant Fred Osman of Evergreen Environmental, Inc., wrote to the DER on June 3, 1993, "the shortage of waste available to Harrisburg is in part related to DER's Municipal Waste Planning, Recycling, and Waste Reduction Program implemented under provisions of Act 101.... In addition, the Governor's Executive Order, the proposed Pennsylvania Waste Shed Legislation, and similar proposals in Congress have all made the City's efforts to secure contracts for wastes more difficult. The stark reality is that if waste streams are not found, revenues are not guaranteed, bonds cannot be issued, and money for upgrade of the facility will not be available."
By the late 1990s conditions at the incinerator only grew worse as the plant deteriorated without proper maintenance. In the late 1990s DER found the incinerator emitting dangerous levels of dioxin into the air.
In 2000, a study by Dr. Barry Commoner suggested dioxin found in the flesh and environment of arctic Inuit Eskimos had originated from Harrisburg's incinerator, thousands of miles away.
Also in 2000, the regional EPA administrator wrote the state DEP that, there is no doubt that (the Harrisburg incinerator) is one of, and perhaps, the most significant single source of dioxins/furans in the United States."
Problems, and denial of problems, continue to this day. An undated DEP violation letter from the last decade, for example, complains that the incinerator "has allowed leachate to seep from Disposal Area B and be released to the air, water, or soil of the Commonwealth which could threaten public health or safety, public welfare or the environment." And that the incinerator's owner, "has deposited, or permitted the depositing, of solid waste onto the surface of the ground or underground or into the waters of the Commonwealth through the leachate seep in Disposal Area B."
There have been other recent violations involving leaks of the ash pile liners, and failures of the leachate monitoring systems.
Who will clean up this long legacy of hazardous waste at the Harrisburg incinerator?
The current and perspective owners of the facility -- the Harrisburg and Lancaster waste authorities -- are still playing irresponsible games about whether hazardous waste ever existed, or still exists, at the infamous facility.
In a letter to Dauphin County Commissioners dated September 25, 2012, incinerator director Jack Lausch wrote, "We see no need to respond to ... unilateral assertion(s) that the facility is a 'hazardous waste site.'"
Even so, Lausch wrote, should the Lancaster County Solid Waste Authority buy the site, the "new permit holder" will be responsible for clean-up costs.
-- Bill Keisling
posted May 22, 2013
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