Federal investigators want to know if PCB-tainted soil buried last summer in a landfill west of Spokane was too toxic to go there and might eventually threaten the ground water.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspectors are asking whether 712 tons of contaminated dirt buried at the Graham Road Recycling and Disposal Facility should have been sent to hazardous waste landfills in Oregon or Idaho.
EPA inspectors will be in Spokane within the next two weeks to investigate.
“They’ll inspect in the field and let me know the results. I’ll then decide what action to take,” said Dan Duncan, EPA’s regional PCB coordinator in Seattle.
If the EPA determines the soil was buried improperly, the landfill could be ordered to dig it up. USA Waste and the company that disposed of the soil could be fined up to $27,500 for each instance of improper waste disposal, Duncan said.
Landfill operators followed proper procedures to review pollution levels in the dirt and determine it was safe for burial, said manager Darrel Startin.
“I believe we did the right thing,” Startin said. The landfill near Fairchild Air Force Base is a subsidiary of USA Waste Services Inc., a Dallas-based conglomerate that’s the third-largest solid waste company in North America.
Larry Biggs, the Spokane businessman who paid to bury the soil, says he had approval from the Washington Department of Ecology.
“We went through the procedures, got letters of approval and disposed of the material,” Biggs said. He chose the West Plains site “because it was closest.”
He declined to say how much he paid to get rid of the dirt. But Startin said USA Waste charges $20 to $30 a ton to take contaminated soil.
At that price, the PCB disposal cost between $14,000 and $21,000, not counting transportation.
The cancer-causing PCBs are colorless, highly toxic liquid compounds. They accumulate in the food chain and pose a hazard to human health.
The soil came from Burlington Northern Railroad property at 6401 N. Freya, where vandals damaged a large transformer in 1994. The land was leased to Biggs’ Rae Corp. at the time.
Approximately 700 gallons of PCB-laced oil leaked into the ground after the vandalism, according to state records.
Federal regulations set stringent cleanup limits for such spills - no more than 10 parts per million in the soil - and restrict where they can be buried.
According to an engineering report, the soils averaged 10 to 12 parts per million, said Phil Wong, chief of EPA’s investigations and engineering division.
“That would place some of the soil over the legal limit,” Wong said.
The PCB controversy reveals a regulatory quirk: Sometimes there’s a confusing overlap in federal, state and county environmental rules.
PCB rules “are a mess,” Biggs said.
Ecology regulators have no jurisdiction over the USA Waste landfill. Although they inspected the original PCB spill site, they only regulate PCB recycling facilities.
Spokane Regional Health District officials licensed the landfill, but don’t police it regularly. Only the landfill’s owners screen every shipment.
“In the past, that hasn’t been necessary. I’ve never seen anything out of place out there,” said Steve Holderby, the health district’s environmental supervisor.
“In this case, the material they took in was very low in parts per million,” Holderby said.
Ecology was notified of the PCB spill in 1994 through a citizen complaint, said Ed Hares, a hazardous waste inspector.
When Hares investigated, he found that Biggs, president of Rae Corp., was digging up the soil for disposal. “This was a voluntary cleanup,” Hares said.
According to his September 1994 inspection report, the PCBs qualified as “dangerous waste” - candidates for burial at a hazardous waste facility. According to the transformer label, the oil contained 400 parts per million of PCBs.
“I’m surprised the soils were sent to Graham Road and not to Arlington,” an Oregon town with a hazardous waste landfill, Hares said.
The Graham Road site shouldn’t be used to dump PCBs and other industrial wastes, he said.
“The Graham Road landfill is spooky, as far as I’m concerned,” Hares said. “I don’t like where it’s sited. People are still drinking water from that area.
“You can engineer things (to protect groundwater), but most of these landfills are going to fail sooner or later.”
The PCB disposal flap is one controversy in a growing list of issues involving the West Plains dump.
USA Waste bought out Sanifill USA, former owners of the Graham Road landfill, last June for about $1.6 billion in stock and assumed debt.
Graham Road Recycling and Disposal opened in 1991 for construction debris. In 1994, it was expanded to a “limited purpose” landfill to hold tires, sterilized medical waste and soil contaminated with petroleum.
It’s not allowed to take municipal garbage or infectious, liquid or hazardous wastes.
Last fall, neighbors got wind of plans to expand the dump from 40 acres to an additional 252 acres to the north, south and west. About half that acreage eventually will contain more disposal areas if expansion plans are approved. Spokane County planners will soon start work on an environmental impact statement.
The landfill is safe, Startin said.
The waste-disposal cells are double-lined, and runoff is collected for evaporation and disposal. The landfill is built more stringently than either state or federal rules call for, he said.
This is a major change from old landfills, which often were unlined and polluted groundwater, Startin said.
“People are scared to death of this site because they don’t understand it,” Startin said. “They have to be educated. We use the best environmental protection technology there is.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo