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Trashing Houston

For some people, driving down Highway 225 from Houston to Deer Park can seem like driving into the mouth of Hell. Rows of petrochemical storage tanks border the road for miles, and the nearby Houston Ship Channel, which stretches down to Galveston Bay, is lined with refineries, chemical plants and plastic manufacturers in a petrochemical jungle. It is a morass of manufacturing, and the result is, often, a profusion of industrial wastes.

It's just the sort of thing that can make people in organizations such as Greenpeace apoplectic, and often for good reason. Industrial waste can in many cases easily become hazardous waste which then simply becomes a hazard. That sort of equation has, in recent years, led many states to engage in a sort of shell game of waste compacts, shuffling trash across borders in the apparent hope that it might disappear along the way, or else to play a bureaucratic game of Not In My Back Yard. California, for one, hasn't fired up a new hazardous-waste incinerator since 1985, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency last May issued what amounts to an 18-month freeze on new incinerators until a dioxin emission standard and more stringent controls for metals are adopted.

Meanwhile, outside the U.S., some 100 nations have decided to refuse to allow the importation of hazardous wastes -- up from three developing nations in 1987 -- and 119 nations have pledged to ban toxic exports.

It's a changing waste world, and that realization causes some other people to have a slightly different view when they're tooling down 225 toward Galveston Bay. Those people see not so much the plants that make the trash as the plants that handle it, a collection of hazardous-waste incinerators larger than that found in any other state, not to mention any other metropolitan area. Houston is incineration central for the nation, with hazardous and non-hazardous waste fueling three commercial and 16 on-site incinerators.

Evidence of Harris County's pre-eminence in this field is bolstered by records that show that not only is local and national waste being burned here, but foreign waste is being burned as well -- some of it from Third World countries, a fact that leaves a Greenpeace representative who's used to lambasting the industrialized world for dumping on non-industrialized nations a little nonplused when asked for a comment. Last year close to 1,000 shipments of foreign industrial waste arrived in Harris and Brazoria counties to be burned, injected into underground wells or transferred elsewhere.

Granted, the foreign waste that's imported is only a sliver of the thousands of tons of waste burned or buried in Harris County each year. But that Harris County has industrial waste imports shows that its experience and capacity for waste disposal is known worldwide. Indeed, according to Bill Hallam of Laidlaw Environmental Services in Deer Park, foreign waste treatment and disposal is a growth area for Houston.

"Especially with the NAFTA treaty, if Mexico will be held to environmental standards already established in the United States," he says. Mexican companies that don't have good environmental policies will probably be required to find a way to treat their waste, and that way could easily be to ship it to a northern location where waste has historically been big business -- i.e., Houston. In fact, some of that may already be happening. According to environmental consultant Ed Kleppinger, the permitted incinerators around Harris County were, back in 1993, treating twice as much waste as was generated for commercial treatment in the entire state of Texas. The difference between what was being generated and what was being treated, Kleppinger says, meant only one thing: "It's coming in from elsewhere."

Of course, whether it's good or bad that Houston is positioned to take advantage of the waste disposal needs of the world is open to debate. Those living near the waste disposal sites might not think the opportunities so grand. But if you happen to own a treatment facility -- well, it's been said that to a man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. No surprise, then, that to a municipality loaded with incinerators, the whole world may look like trash.

As he walks through the 85-acre Rollins Environmental Services plant near the San Jacinto Monument, Rollins' Rusty Dunn puts it another way. "It's no accident we're here in Deer Park, Texas," says the environmental affairs manager. "We're here because our customers are here."

Indeed, not too far from Rollins can be found billboards that hail waste treatment firms and the safety records of the local plants they serve. The businesses that fill the land near the Houston Ship Channel employ, according to some estimates, about 52,000 people in the Houston area. The companies came here because the natural products were here, the port was here and, some might say, because the powers-that-be in other places wouldn't tolerate the risks associated with production.

Whatever the reasons, the chemical and plastics industries are centered on the Texas Gulf Coast, and they generate industrial wastes. For the sandy-haired, boyish-looking Dunn, such realities are familiar facts of life. Dunn grew up in neighboring Pasadena, working summer jobs at Rollins as he attended Texas A&M, where he majored in chemical engineering. He emptied drums of waste, unloaded trucks, checked gauges and dials and did whatever a college student/summer-job worker was told to do. It was a good job then, and it's a good job now, he says. Dunn describes himself as "an environmental type of guy."

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.

"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."

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.

At the time of the hearing, Rollins officials maintained that the company had no way of knowing it was accepting radioactive wastes and that there was no hazard since contamination levels were low. Dunn says wastes are routinely checked before disposal and that no discernible levels of radiation were ever detected.

Those types of problems worry LaNell Anderson, who has a proprietary interest in Rollins and companies like it. Anderson lives in nearby Channelview, sells houses for a living and is a new member of the citizen review panel for Rollins Environmental Services.

Though she can talk like she's handing out pamphlets on Earth Day, she is quick to describe herself otherwise. "I am not a tree hugger," she says firmly, describing herself as "50 and fat" and unembarassed about driving a Cadillac. She says she needs the Caddy for her job as a Realtor -- and besides, it gets 22 miles per gallon. She is anything but anti-business. "We need the jobs, we need the tax base, we need the companies," Anderson says. "We just need them to follow the federal law."

The ten-member citizen review panel consists of six Channelview residents and four residents of Deer Park. "Everyone seems to be surprised that Rollins went for this," Anderson says. "But we really think this is the way to go, dealing directly with the companies."

Anderson cites the burning of radioactive wastes at Rollins as a symptom of an industry-wide problem. "My point has always been that either they weren't testing properly or their testing methods were inaccurate or inadequate," Anderson says.

Word that Rollins might be put under the surveillance of a "monitoring company" doesn't help Anderson rest easy, since the local monitoring firm has received assistance from a state trade organization, the Texas Chemical Council.

"It's hard to find any monitoring company that's not heavily funded by the chemical industry," Anderson says. "So what we're doing is monitoring their monitoring."

She is not without a track record. Anderson and others fought the permit process for American Envirotech, a proposed commercial hazardous-waste incinerator that was approved by the state. Resistance to the American Envirotech plant went on for more than four years.

One of the main concerns about the incinerator was that it was to be located directly over an underground water supply line that went to the East Houston water treatment center. Near the site, the 108-inch water supply line had a valve that took in ambient air. Anderson contended that mercury, arsenic and lead simply vaporized when incinerated and that those substances might be introduced into the water supply.

Protests by Anderson and others did not stop the TNRCC from granting a permit. But economics may have succeeded where activism failed: reports are that a business dispute has led to postponement of construction, and the plant may be in question. This, coupled with the anticipation that environmental vigilance might further strap the incinerator industry, may decrease the chances of American Envirotech ever opening.

Despite the efforts to oppose hazardous-waste incinerators such as the one proposed at American Envirotech, the industrial-waste disposal business that has grown around the Houston area's massive petroleum-related production base is not about to fade away. Opposition to new incinerators in Houston has surfaced, from both environmental activists and local government, but with mixed results. Assistant City Attorney Tim Lignoul says efforts to stop the construction of a Houston Chemical Services commercial incinerator near LaPorte have failed thus far, though a petition is pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

"The only time we can fight these things is when they apply for the initial permit or when they come up for renewal. It was just the timing on this. Some of the other ones that are here, are here," says Lignoul. "There's really nothing we can do to the ones that are already here. It's the permits that we have to fight."

To some degree, foreign industrial wastes will continue to fuel the incinerator owners' side of the argument.

"Non-hazardous materials are not banned from coming," the TNRCC's Faulkner says. "Non-hazardous wastes oftentimes come in to Texas for disposal because we have good disposal facilities with good track records."

And for people in the industry, efforts to shut down what they see as the best way to dispose of the unwanted byproducts of mass production just don't make sense. "Some people think if they get rid of hazardous-waste incinerators, hazardous waste will disappear," says Dunn of Rollins. He shakes his head. "It's not going away.


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