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---July 8, 1993---
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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was back in court in June, once again defending the right of the Vertac incinerator to vent dioxin-contaminated gases into a residential neighborhood in Jacksonville, Arkansas.

The Jacksonville incinerator has been burning dioxin-contaminated pesticides since last November as part of a Superfund cleanup at the Vertac site. For more than a decade, the Vertac company manufactured dioxin-contaminated pesticides in Jacksonville for use in the Vietnam war. Vertac officials left town hurriedly in the mid-1970s, abandoning some 30,000 leaking drums of chemical wastes. Despite local protests, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton personally approved the Vertac site incinerator last November.

In mid-June two employees of the incinerator company signed affidavits saying they had seen dioxin-contaminated wastes being intentionally blown out the smoke stack. One of the employees said under oath that she had regularly seen dioxin-contaminated pesticides oozing from the hot kiln: "I have seen 2,4-D pesticide waste leaking from the seals around the incinerator kiln. The waste oozes out from the seals and burns on the outside of the hot kiln, giving off black smoke and a strong odor," she said.

An EPA official stationed at the Vertac site confirmed publicly that dioxin-contaminated pesticide wastes "ooze" from the kiln during combustion. Rick Ehrhart, remedial site manager for EPA, told a news reporter pesticide leaks from the kiln are "not unusual." He said such leaks are "cause for concern" but that nothing can be done about them. "You don't have a lot of control over it," he said.[1] Such leaks are just "something that happens at all incinerators," he said.[2]

Even before these latest revelations, federal district judge Stephen Reasoner in Little Rock had concluded in April that the Vertac incinerator was a public health hazard and was operating "in violation of the EPA's own regulations," and he ordered it shut. EPA and the Vertac incinerator operators filed a joint appeal, and Judge Reasoner's first shutdown order was overturned on procedural grounds. Reasoner then heard new testimony, re-wrote his conclusions, and ordered the plant shut a second time.

The day Judge Reasoner's second shutdown order was filed, the 8th circuit court of appeals in St. Louis overturned Reasoner's order BEFORE VERTAC AND EPA HAD EVEN FILED A SECOND APPEAL. No appeal had been filed when the appeals court overturned Judge Reasoner's second order and directed that Vertac be allowed to keep operating. It was one of the most remarkable displays of judicial prejudice in memory.

In mid-June the two Vertac employees came forward and signed affidavits[3] under oath saying they had witnessed continuing spills of hazardous waste at the site, and had witnessed flakes of dioxin-contaminated salts falling from the incinerator smoke stack "comparable to a light snow fall."

Carolyn Lance, a Vertac employee, said in a sworn affidavit that she had worked at the Vertac site two and a half years, first as a maintenance technician, then in a warehouse dispensing parts to repair crews. "[O]n May 14th, at about 2:50 p.m.," she wrote, "I noticed salt flakes ranging in size from about the size of a nickel to the size of a quarter falling through the air. The flakes were coming from the incinerator stack. The release of hazardous salts from the stack is not unusual at the Vertac incinerator," she said. "There have been several other occasions when I have observed salt flakes falling from the incinerator stack. These incidents last ten to fifteen minutes at a time and are comparable to a light snowfall."

Chris DuJardin also worked at Vertac for two and a half years, as a maintenance technician, and reported seeing the same incident May 14th. DuJardin said in a sworn affidavit, "On May 14, 1993, at approximately 3 or 3:30 p.m. I was alerted by a co-worker that contaminated salts created by the spray dryer pollution control system were spewing out of the stack of the Vertac incinerator. Pollution control salts are contaminated with hazardous chemicals that are partially removed from the incinerator's gases by the spray dryer system prior to emission into the air. It is my understanding that the salts are contaminated with dioxins and heavy metals. Normally the salts drop through the system and are collected in drums to be disposed of as hazardous wastes.

"Initially, I didn't think much of the May 14, 1993 event," DuJardin said in a sworn affidavit, "because the Vertac incinerator and related systems experience frequent malfunctions and other problems requiring constant attention.

"However, upon looking at the stack I became alarmed because of the amount of salts and height of the salt plume blowing out of the stack. The plume appeared to be headed in the direction of my home and a nearby school attended by my nephew....

"It was obvious to me that the incinerator's 300 horsepower fan had been intentionally turned on in order to clear the salts from the system. The incinerator had recently been experiencing operating difficulties apparently because salts had clogged various systems where they normally should not be found.... As a result of the salt clogging problem, the spray dryer component of the incinerator had built up such pressure that the fiberglass housing of the system cracked. I was involved in repairing the cracks in the spray dryer system's housing.

"I decided to inform Mr. Dan Fuller, operations coordinator, about the salts coming from the stack.... When I told Mr. Fuller about salts coming from the stack, he told me it was steam, not salts, that were being emitted. I told him I knew it was salts because I had been outside and had seen the salts falling to the ground and being blown away. Mr. Fuller responded to my concern by saying, 'prove it.'

"... Since leaving the site on May 14, 1993, I have expressed my concerns to the media, investigators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criminal investigation division, and Arkansas Assistant Attorney General Charles Moulton. Despite my communication with various government officials, the Vertac incinerator continues to operate," DuJardin wrote.

In her affidavit, Carolyn Lance described other serious problems at the Vertac site. She wrote, "I have seen 2,4-D pesticide waste leaking from the seals around the incinerator kiln. The waste oozes out from the seals and burns on the outside of the hot kiln, giving off black smoke and a strong odor. I understand that D-waste [2,4-D pesticide waste] was leaking from the kiln as recently as Monday, June 14, 1993. Over the last six months I have observed at least one period of time when waste leaked from the seals and onto the outside of the kiln every day for about a thirty day period. Since January 1993 I have observed wastes leaking from the kiln seals at least every week, sometimes dribbling down onto the concrete pad the incinerator sits on," Lance wrote.

EPA administrator Carol Browner now has an opportunity to confront the corruption in Jacksonville head on. Attorneys for local citizens opposed to the Vertac incinerator wrote her in late June, asking her to intervene personally to "stop the poisoning" in Jacksonville. Attorneys Richard Condit and Mick Harrison of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) in Washington, D.C., said, "Our clients do not wish to resort to direct confrontations with EPA and the Clinton administration, but they will not stand by and continue to be poisoned." Browner's office said it would take several weeks for the administrator and her attorneys to draft a reply.

The reply, when it comes, will reveal unmistakably what this administrator is made of.

Is "poisoned" too strong a word for what EPA and the Vertac operators are doing to the people of Jacksonville? How dangerous is dioxin? EPA has been studying this question for the past 2 years, and some conclusions are beginning to emerge. For at least a decade, EPA has considered dioxin so dangerous that humans shouldn't be exposed to it at all. Then the paper industry and the Chlorine Institute convinced EPA officials to take a fresh look at available scientific evidence.

Dr. Kenneth Olden, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) said recently, "I've looked at the data, and I'm not aware of any new scientific studies that suggest it's not as dangerous as we thought it was."[4] Dr. George Lucier of NIEHS says dioxin is not only a carcinogen but it also increases the risk of diabetes, reduces sperm count, and can cause birth defects by disrupting the normal working of human calls. "I would say one's concerns about [existing] environmental levels of dioxin have not been diminished by recent scientific evidence," Lucier said.[4]

Linda Birnbaum, whom SCIENCE magazine calls "EPA's top dioxin researcher," says, "In my opinion, there is no reason to believe that dioxin is less hazardous than had been presumed in the past."[5] Taking into account "toxic equivalency factors" for dioxin-like chemicals (dibenzofurans and some PCBs), the current average of "dioxin equivalents" in the blood of Americans is 50 parts per trillion [ppt] and "Fifty ppt is a level we should be concerned about," Birnbaum told SCIENCE.

In sum, the current best science says there's already enough dioxin in the bodies of average Americans to create health risks. An incinerator like the one in Jacksonville, raining dioxins down upon the heads and homes of local citizens, is a public menace.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.

[1] Sandy Davis, "Vertac leaks common, affidavit says," ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT GAZETTE June 22, 1993, pgs. 1B, 3B.

[2] Sandy Davis, "Lawyer's letter asks EPA chief to stop 'poisoning' at Vertac," ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT GAZETTE June 25, 1993, pg. 2B.

[3] Both affidavits are available from us for $4.00 each.

[4] Eric J. Greenberg, "Feds Warn of New Dioxin Dangers," NEW YORK DAILY NEWS June 24, 1993, pg. 14.

[5] Richard Stone, "Dioxin: Still deadly," SCIENCE Vol. 260 (April 2, 1993), pg. 31.

Descriptor terms: epa; jacksonville; vertac; incineration; superfund; lawsuits; gap; government accountability project; ar; arkansas; pesticides; 2,4,5-T; cbw; bill clinton; whistle blowers; stephen reasoner; spills; hazardous waste; occupational safety and health; carol browner; dioxin; kenneth olden; niehs; george lucier; linda birnbaum;


The Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (CCHW) and Ralph Nader will co-sponsor a strategy session October 15-17 in Washington, D.C.: "Smoke and Mirrors: Ending the Bad Science of Incineration." Phone Mike Williams at CCHW: (703) 237-2249.

Descriptor terms: incineration; meetings; calendar; cchw; ralph nader; washington; dc; mike williams;

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