Spokane officials caused a public furor three years ago when they burned tons of used Canadian pesticide containers in the city’s garbage burner on the West Plains.
Now, they’ve torched wastes from a British Columbia diesel spill - reigniting the controversy over whether the trash plant should burn anything but municipal garbage.
As a result of the latest burn, Spokane’s air quality director told the state Department of Ecology that he no longer can guarantee the Spokane plant is complying with state air quality laws.
“I am unable to certify” the plant’s compliance “when the waste stream is materially altered by the addition of special wastes,” Eric Skelton said in an Aug. 22 letter to Anthony Grover, the department’s new regional director in Spokane.
Skelton is director of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.
There’s nothing unusual about the Canadian diesel fuel disposal deal, said Damon Taam, the city’s solid waste director.
“We are permitted for this. We take diesel oil pads and oil filters from a lot of people - including a lot from Spokane,” Taam said.
The diesel fuel was from a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad train derailment near Salmo, British Columbia. The incinerated wastes included pads used to soak up the fuel.
Taam has told the Spokane environmental consulting firm that arranged the Canadian disposal deal that he’s open for similar business in the future.
Spokane’s solid waste system “looks forward to doing business with Olympus Environmental Inc./Burlington Northern Santa Fe and hopes you consider the System for future waste disposal needs,” said Taam in a May 22 letter.
The city charges $131.75 a ton to dispose of such “special” wastes, as opposed to $97 a ton for regular garbage, Taam said.
But the Canadian diesel deal raised concerns among local air quality regulators who tangled with the city over the Canadian pesticide jugs in 1994.
The city didn’t tell SCAPCA of its decision to burn the diesel-soaked Canadian rags and other “special waste” discards. Skelton found out about them from a Department of Ecology hazardous waste official who’d been contacted by Olympus Environmental about the diesel discards.
The 20 cubic yards of diesel-soaked pads aren’t considered a dangerous waste “and are suitable to be incinerated,” said Olympus Field Supervisor Ross Ricke in an Aug. 17 letter to Ecology.
But Skelton said in his Aug. 22 letter to Ecology that such wastes can alter the pollutants from the garbage plant stack.
Three years ago, Skelton tried to fine the city for burning 1,056 tons of shredded pesticide jugs from Jan. 4 to Feb. 3, 1994.
The pesticide burn triggered criticism from local environmental groups, scathing editorials, and complaints by garbage workers of headaches, stomachaches and sore throats while working near the pesticide containers.
SCAPCA obtained a legal opinion from Laurie Halvorson, attorney for the Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Authority, that upheld Skelton’s decision to issue a notice of violation to the city for burning the wastes without the air agency’s knowledge or final approval.
SCAPCA’s action angered Phil Williams, the city’s former solid waste director and current engineering director, who had accepted many types of discards for incineration.
The city fought SCAPCA by hiring its own outside counsel. Craig Trueblood issued an opinion directly contrary to Halvorson’s, saying Williams’ policy didn’t violate the plant’s air permit.
“The basic question here is who’s really in charge of the waste-to-energy plant,” Williams said at the time.
In April 1994, the SCAPCA board told Skelton not to fine the city, but to work out a new policy with Williams and the state Department of Ecology on what legally can be burned in the incinerator.
Former Ecology regional director Claude Sappington was put in charge of brokering an agreement. None was reached.
The effort “fizzled,” said Ecology’s Grant Pfeiffer.
That left the enforcement language unclear - and also left a regulatory vacuum for the city to solicit more lucrative special wastes.
Ecology should resolve the issue of what can be burned in the garbage plant, said Bonnie Mager of the Washington Environmental Council.
The city’s solid waste office is “taking risks with our air - and thumbing their nose at SCAPCA,” Mager said.
But Taam said a city-county liaison board of elected officials told him last year he could proceed with “business as usual” to accept special wastes that don’t qualify as hazardous wastes.
Skelton says SCAPCA should be involved before “special wastes” are burned to determine whether they could harm air quality.
Records show that many unusual discards had been burned in the trash plant over the years, including Boeing’s military secrets on magnetic tapes and carbon dust from Kaiser Aluminum’s Mead smelter.
If Ecology wants to address again the issue of what’s burned in the trash plant, he won’t object, Taam said.
“We’ve always participated with them,” he said.
Ecology will mediate the dispute if the SCAPCA board wants them to, said Grover, Ecology’s regional director and a trained mediator.
“We will be deciding within the next few days,” he said.