PCBs a dangerous downside to recycling work
Yesterday’s news becomes tomorrow’s broadsheet at Inland Empire Paper Co., where the newsprint rolling off the paper machine contains 40 percent recycled fiber content.
But there’s a dirty little downside to the recycling process. Ink from the old newspapers contains tiny amounts of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The toxic compounds end up in the Millwood plant’s treated wastewater, which gets discharged into the Spokane River.
It’s a dilemma for Inland Empire Paper, a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review. The fiber in old newspapers, phone books and office paper gets recycled up to seven times at the plant, creating newsprint sold to customers as far away as Florida. But keeping old newspaper out of landfills puts more toxins into the river. PCBs weren’t detected in the plant’s treated wastewater until after 1991, when the recycling effort began.
“We don’t generate the PCBs … they’re a product of the recycling process,” said Doug Krapas, the plant’s environmental manager.
In the late 1970s, the United States banned the manufacture of polychlorinated biphenyls, a family of chemical compounds that researchers have linked to cancer, developmental delays and behavioral problems, and other health issues in people and wildlife. Yet PCBs still show up in many U.S. products through imported components, such as inks from Indonesia that are used to print newspapers.
Imported inks and dyes can contain PCBs at concentrations up to 50 parts per million, according to standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While that sounds like a minute amount, that far exceeds state and tribal water quality standards for the Spokane River, which are expressed as parts per quadrillion.
Last year, officials from Inland Empire Paper and two local environmental groups – the Spokane Riverkeeper and The Lands Council – sent a joint letter to the EPA, urging agency officials to ban the importation of inks and other products containing PCBs.
The EPA is in the midst of reviewing standards for use of PCBs in manufacturing allowed under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The agency’s decision is expected in 2013.
“We’re trying to get EPA to change the regulations,” said Inland Empire Paper’s Krapas. “To me, it’s a no-brainer to make ‘PCB-free’ actually PCB-free. Right now, they’re calling 50 parts per million PCB-free.”
Newspaper ink isn’t the only problem. PCBs are also found in motor oil, paints, lubricants and even some health and beauty products, including face creams and certain brands of red lipstick.
People used to think of PCBs as “legacy pollutants,” with contamination coming primarily from old waste sites, said Rick Eichstaedt, of the Spokane Riverkeeper. But PCBs are found in a surprising number of new products, which multiplies the number of ways they can end up in rivers and lakes, he said.
“Think of how many cars leak a little bit of oil,” Eichstaedt said.
The city of Spokane’s storm drains are the single largest contributor of PCBs to the Spokane River, studies indicate. City officials recently tested several brands of motor oil for PCBs. The concentrations were nearly 250,000 times greater than the Washington Department of Ecology’s water quality standard for the river, said Dale Arnold, the city’s wastewater management director.
The Spokane Tribe of Indians has even stricter PCB limits for the Spokane River. The long-lasting toxins build up in fish tissue. In recent letter, Greg Abrahamson, tribal chairman, said PCB releases must come down to nearly undetectable levels for the tribe’s members to exercise treaty rights and safely consume fish from the river.
The PCB levels in Spokane River fish have declined since the 1990s, a recent study determined. However, the reductions weren’t large enough to lift health advisories urging people to limit their meals of Spokane River fish.
Eichstaedt said federal regulations governing the use of PCBs in manufacturing don’t match water quality standards protective of human health.
“Ultimately, these chemicals end up in our wastewater plants and folks like the city of Spokane, Inland Empire Paper and others are being asked to clean them up,” Eichstaedt said. “We’ve got to stop importing them into our community.”
As part of new discharge permits limiting the amount of algae-fertilizing phosphorus released into the Spokane River, the state will require river dischargers to monitor for PCBs and participate in a regional task force to reduce PCBs and other toxins in the river.
But the approach has been controversial. Kaiser Aluminum is appealing its discharge permit, in part because the company said its compliance obligations to the regional task force are unclear. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and Center for Environmental Law and Policy have filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue, saying the lack of immediate PCB limits in the permits violates the federal Clean Water Act.
Others applaud the collaborative approach. Mike Petersen, The Lands Council’s executive director, said he’s optimistic that an alliance of industry and environmental groups could prompt regulatory changes that would ban or reduce new sources of PCBs flowing into the river.
On a statewide level, the community already has a successful track record of collaborating to keep household phosphorus sources out of the Spokane River, Petersen said.
Keeping new sources of PCBs out of the river is a worthwhile cause, Petersen said.
“They’re harmful in such small amounts,” he said.
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