Trashing Houston

To a world worried about waste, Houston may offer an answer -- or at least a place for the garbage to go

Dunn's employer, Rollins, is a national player in hazardous-waste disposal. Dunn jokingly says Rollins "was into incineration before it was cool." Not much of this industry has a long history: Rollins fired up the nation's first large-scale commercial hazardous-waste incinerator in 1970. In 1981, Rollins received the first federal permit to incinerate polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs.

Until recently, the plant handled more hazardous waste than any other facility in America. Rollins is one of two commercial hazardous-waste incinerators operating in the Houston area. The other is Rhone-Poulenc Basic Chemical of Houston. Houston Chemical Services has received a permit for an incinerator near LaPorte but has not begun operation. A fourth, American Envirotech, was approved by the state but has not opened. Texas' only other commercial incinerator is in Port Arthur. The state's 30 remaining hazardous-waste incinerators are operated to dispose of industrial wastes produced on-site, so no wastes are brought to them from outside.

Commercial incinerators by definition sell their services, receiving business from various sources. The wastes can arrive in gas, sludge, liquid or solid forms and can consist of pharmaceutical and laboratory wastes, contaminated soils, pesticides, refinery sludges and a long list of other residues. Some wastes are mixed after they arrive; others are delivered in trucks and come "ready to burn."

"The key to making money is to use a wide variety of wastes," Dunn explains. The wastes are mixed "on the front end" before they are fed into one of the plant's three rotary kiln incinerators. "You've got to know what you're feeding in," Dunn says. Care is taken so the materials fuel the incinerator at the right level, since the heat content of each waste affects how hot the incinerator burns. The temperature should hover between 1,800 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, though one of the kilns burns at around 1,500 degrees.

In the control room, workers can view the inside of the rotary kiln by closed-circuit television. The flame is white-hot, surrounded by orange. Clumps of a dark substance can be seen dripping into the flame. The scene is reminiscent of a close-up of a volcano, without the eruptions.

The wall is covered with red lighted numbers that show the temperatures in different parts of the incinerator. Orange-jump-suited workers sit and watch the instruments even though, as Dunn explains, adjustments are made by computer. Decisions on what wastes to mix and how fast to feed them into the incinerator also are made in advance, not at this point in the control room.

Most of what Rollins gets, Dunn says, are "contaminated media" -- substances that have hazardous constituents, such as dirt or sludge or liquid with certain levels of benzene, PCBs or some other potentially dangerous component.

Even after incineration, there are leftovers. A dry, clumpy, powdery "ash" remains. As Dunn drives a Ford Dually past the three incinerators, he heads up a brief incline near several dozen containers of ash, each with a tarpaulin tied over it. They will be carried to a triple-lined landfill and dumped.

Rollins is just one of the Houston area's incinerator facilities. The numbers outline the tale. Of the 190 approved or active hazardous-waste incinerators in the United States, Texas has the most: 35. That's more than double Louisiana's 17, which is the second most of any state. Harris County's 17 hazardous-waste incinerators matches the entire state of Louisiana, and when you add the furnace in nearby Sugar Land, the Houston area has more hazardous-waste incinerators than any state other than Texas. Two additional incinerators are just down I-45 in Texas City.

Incineration has been seen by many as the high-end method of getting rid of waste, so as governmental and business attention to environmental concerns has grown through the years, the role of incineration has increased. But lately, business has been off at Rollins and throughout the industrial-waste disposal trade. Part of the reason for that may be that as manufacturers become aware that it can be cheaper to minimize the amount of waste produced than to worry about disposing of it, they've become more proficient at keeping their trash cans empty.

"In waste management, the Rollinses of the world are the last step," Dunn says. "It's the most expensive." So with the dual incentive of saving money and complying with government mandates, companies are sending less waste off-site for treatment.

This slowdown is not entirely a surprise. Handling hazardous waste is a risky business, both ecologically and financially. A giant in the waste business, the Houston-based Browning-Ferris Industries, bailed out of the hazardous-waste business in 1990 after suffering operating losses in that sector "caused by a significant decline in disposal revenues." BFI had been hit with a $25,000 fine in Ohio for a hazardous-waste violation, but the decision to drop that end of the business was linked to shrinking revenue and the inability to obtain permits for new hazardous-waste disposal capacity.

One possibly less benign reason for the slowdown is the ascendancy of cement kilns in the hazardous-waste business. Use of cement kilns draws criticism from firms like Rollins as well as from environmental activists. Coming from incinerator owners -- who are, after all, competitors -- the complaints may sound self-serving. But the hazardous-waste incineration companies have some unlikely allies in their struggle with cement kilns. Neil Carman, who for 12 years was a field inspector for the Texas Air Control Board, is now the clean-air program director with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. Incinerators worry him, but cement kilns burning hazardous waste really worry him.

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