Trashing Houston

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

"It's such a dirty process, in that it has a lot of particulate emissions," Carman says. The opacity of the smoke at a hazardous-waste incinerator is usually 5 percent or less. With cement kilns, it can be between 20 and 30 percent.

Cement kilns are normally used in the production of cement, but since they can also burn off hazardous waste, disposal has become a growth area for the business. "The reason they're doing it is, they're making more money burning hazardous waste than they are making the cement," Carman says. Another advantage is they can dispose of the waste from the burn in unlined quarries. Commercial incinerators have to use hazardous-waste landfills for their leftover ash.

Even though about half of the five million tons of hazardous waste burned each year are combusted at 15 large commercial incinerators and 34 cement kilns, nationwide more hazardous waste is disposed of in underground injection wells than is incinerated. The Houston area has eight wells certified for hazardous waste.

Whether it be incineration or deep-injection wells, the influences on the industrial-waste disposal industry go far beyond the basic economic precepts of supply and demand. Federal regulation, and anticipation of possible EPA regulation, have a lot to do with how flush the business is. Even though business may be down now, optimistic industrial-waste treatment leaders point to anticipated EPA actions as a reason to expect a turnaround. Further EPA restrictions on what can be put in landfills will lead to more wastes' having to be incinerated, thereby boosting business for incinerators such as those found around Houston. It's thought that generators of even small quantities of hazardous waste will no longer be exempt from EPA regulations. Then there's those site clean-ups. That's the optimistic tune some are whistling.

With trade deals such as NAFTA diminishing borders between countries in the name of business, there should be little surprise that the waste business also takes advantage of this development.

No one denies that industrial wastes are imported into Texas. It's legal and recorded. The disagreement surfaces over how well it's checked and how much people should worry about it.

Hector Villa, for one, is more concerned about U.S. industrial waste being covertly dumped in Mexico. That's why he started Project Exodus in 1988.

Villa, the regional manager for TNRCC in El Paso, says he had friends "tell me there was a lot of toxic waste being illegally brought into Mexico and disposed of, just dumping it on the desert land." So he proposed checking all Mexico-bound trucks for hazardous waste at a random time and day. "People thought I was crazy," Villa recalls. But not so crazy that the U.S. Customs didn't go along. California followed suit.

Though it wasn't the focus of the program, trucks headed to the United States from Mexico were also stopped and searched. The result? About three trucks a day were refused entry into the United States. The problem with Villa's idea was its limited scope. It was done twice in 1988, three times in 1989. Grace Montgomery Faulkner, manager of waste evaluation for the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, admits that the program is a hit-or-miss affair. "We send some loads back, and quite a few that are okay we send through," she says. "This is only good for half or three-quarters of a day, because after a while word gets out and nobody that's not clean is going to come across. So that's why we have to do it unannounced."

Even if only several trucks a day are in violation, by extrapolation to a yearly figure, those numbers become significant. "With the onset of NAFTA, we're going to have a lot more hazardous waste being generated and being taken to disposal sites," Villa predicts. The main disposal problem in Mexico is that the country has only one toxic dump, located in the desert between Monterrey and the border. The dump receives an average of 5,000 metric tons of toxic materials a month, less than 1 percent of the estimated 5 million to 6.5 million metric tons Mexico produces yearly.

As a result of NAFTA, a border Environmental Cooperation Commission funded by the World Bank is being discussed. Increased trade will mean more stress on the border's roads and bridges as well as on its environmental gatekeepers. "You always have to be fearful," Villa says. "That's why people up and down the border, from San Diego to Brownsville, have always argued that if NAFTA passes, we don't have the infrastructure to serve those purposes."

The Sierra Club's Carman, drawing on his experience as a field inspector for the state Air Control Board, agrees that the system set up to keep tabs on foreign industrial waste imported into Texas isn't doing what needs to be done. "There's been very minimal enforcement about how the stuff is transported, how it's being handled, what's in it, and where it's being processed, blended, burned, the whole nine yards," he says. "When you have to rely on people to self-report, it does not work. It may work for some companies and some types of industry, but when you get into hazardous-waste management, you're going to find a pretty significant percentage of folks who are going to be violators and willingly, intentionally violating the law because there's been such lax enforcement and even regulation in Texas."

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