Trashing Houston

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

One complicating factor might be that the TNRCC is still going through consolidation, and its enforcement abilities may have been affected. TNRCC was created last September when the Texas Air Control Board and the Water Commission were merged to form one agency to oversee the state's environmental regulations.

The TNRCC's Faulkner admits that the commission's record-keeping is a work in progress. "All the way around, the program was deficient a few years ago," she says. "We've taken care of most of those problems working with transporters, EPA, getting staff. All of those things are working now."

Looking back can be confusing. "We can't go back and figure out any trend because we don't have the information," Faulkner says. For example, it's hard for the TNRCC to determine if more foreign waste is coming into Texas today than five years ago.

"There is not [a reliable way to know] because there was not good record-keeping two, three, five years ago. Up to five years ago, there was very little record-keeping at all," Faulkner says. "The problem with that [is], the program up until about two and a half years ago did not separate the waste in a manner that you could tell where the waste came from. The people who received the waste reported it and the people who disposed of the waste reported it. We can tell you what's been happening the last two years or so, but we can't go back any further than that."

The foreign industrial waste that does find its way to Harris County is far from one-dimensional. The 974 shipments that came in last year contained substances in 58 different categories. Not all of them were hazardous, but even some of the shipments classified as non-hazardous don't sound too safe. For instance, catalyst waste, spent solvent, oil sludge, polyester resins, oil filters and "containers, empty and rendered unusable" are but a few of the shipments that escape the hazardous classification.

The dangerous stuff sounds that way. Consider these shipments: mixed laboratory packs, pesticide waste, petroleum-contaminated solids, scrubber water, epoxy resin, caustic aqueous waste, metal inorganic salts/chemicals, spent acid with metals and waste liquid mercury.

The country of origin for the waste appears to have little to do with the cargo. The shipments include batteries or battery parts from Panama, paint thinner from Mexico, oil and debris from offshore, PCB-contaminated oil from Puerto Rico, spent catalyst from Canada, petroleum-contaminated solids from the Virgin Islands and catalyst waste from Belgium, England, Germany and Italy.

The wastes are incinerated, put into deep-injection wells, used in fuel blending or transported elsewhere. Last year, Laidlaw Environmental Services of Deer Park received 374 shipments of foreign waste. None of it was supposed to stay there for long. Laidlaw is allowed to store it for up to a month.

"The way Laidlaw does it is, they collect all the waste in Mexico, then they ship it right across to the facility in Deer Park," says Maria Rodriguez of the TNRCC's waste evaluation division. "From there they ship it somewhere else. We would lose sight of it from there. They are responsible from there."

One of the busiest foreign-waste recipients outside the Houston area also appears to be the most troubled. TNRCC has had continuing problems with Gibraltar Chemical Resources in Winona, Texas, near Tyler. Gibraltar uses fuel blending and deep-injection wells to dispose of hazardous and non-hazardous wastes. Neighbors have complained about foul odors and "upsets" at the plant that have led to TNRCC citations and warnings. On September 22 of last year, TNRCC closed Gibraltar by an emergency order until the company could demonstrate that it could comply with federal and state regulations. It reopened eight days later.

Community activists and former plant workers allege that the plant's operators were often unaware of or insensitive to what wastes were mixed or injected into the wells. Such carelessness or bad intent has, according to the Sierra Club's Carman, given TNRCC "a rude awakening" about hazardous-waste disposal and fuel blending. "They don't have a handle on it," Carman says.

Gibraltar may be a dramatic example, but it is not alone. No matter how many precautions are taken, accidents do happen; lightning does strike. It did once at Rollins -- quite literally -- and with unpleasant results.

In 1991 lightning struck the Rollins plant, knocking out its electrical power. When the power came back on, the computer didn't "read" the situation correctly, and the cooling water meant for the scrubber was not distributed. The result: the scrubber melted, and fire trucks had to be summoned to the plant. Dunn emphasizes that even with the loss of the scrubber, no toxic gases were released from the incinerator during the incident.

Rollins' other high-profile mishap was revealed during a congressional hearing in February 1992. The Department of Energy discovered that a government contractor had doctored shipping papers to hide the fact that radioactive wastes from nuclear weapons plants were incinerated at Rollins and other sites. The shipments were sent over an 11-year period beginning in 1980 from the Department of Energy's weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. More than a dozen disposal sites, none licensed to handle radioactive material, received the waste. Rollins received and incinerated 897,000 pounds of the waste, the DOE said.

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