=======================Electronic Edition========================

---August 1, 1990---
News and resources for environmental justice.
Environmental Research Foundation
P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403
Fax (410) 263-8944; Internet: erf@igc.apc.org
The Back issues and Index are available here.
The official RACHEL archive is here. It's updated constantly.
To subscribe, send E-mail to rachel- weekly- request@world.std.com
with the single word SUBSCRIBE in the message. It's free.
===Previous Issue==========================================Next Issue===


Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, engineers and scientists employed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and by private manufacturers of nuclear power plants, like Westinghouse, argued that the solution to radioactive waste disposal was to mix the stuff with some self-hardening glop (asphalt, concrete, epoxy, you name it) and bury it in a shallow grave, a landfill.

Starting in 1978, when Love Canal was discovered, the private producers and government regulators of hazardous chemical wastes argued that the solution to their problem was to mix it with some self-hardening glop (asphalt, concrete, epoxy, you name it) and bury it in a shallow grave.

Now that the people who used to make nuclear power plants are making municipal solid waste incinerators instead, the engineering world is buzzing with a "new" idea: the solution to the problem of toxic ash waste is to mix the stuff with some self-hardening glop (asphalt, concrete, epoxy, you name it) and bury it in a shallow grave.

In the case of radioactive waste, the idea of self-hardening glop and shallow disposal was completely rejected. Instead, the decision was made to let the earth itself provide a barrier between the wastes and the environment that people inhabit. So the current plan is to bury high-level radioactive wastes half a mile below ground in artificial caves made for that purpose. As an added measure of protection, the radioactive material may be solidified with some self-hardening glop (molten glass has been discussed for this use for 20 years) before it is lowered into the cave, but the main barrier between humans and the radioactive danger is to be a half-mile of solid earth.

The reason self-hardening glop was rejected for radioactive wastes is that there is no way to prove how long any self-hardening agent will remain solid. A block of concrete-and-mixed-waste today may crack and break into pieces within a few decades, eventually turning back into toxic sand, depending on what happens to it (in terms of chemical environment, physical environment and geological forces) in the future, and depending on what chemicals the original waste contained. The same uncertainty plagues epoxy, asphalt, or any other material you can name. And there is no way to test the breakdown of self-hardening materials, except to give it a try, and then wait and see what happens. This amounts to conducting an experiment on our children, or upon THEIR children, and it is obviously immoral and wrong. Who gives incinerator companies the right to place toxic time bombs in the ground, waiting to contaminate the nation's water supplies and soils with a potent neurotoxin like lead? Our children are already dangerously contaminated with lead (see RHWN #189). The chemical waste producers are willing to experiment on our children, and the garbage incinerator people seem positively eager to conduct such experiments--they're ready to bury new mixtures of glop and highly toxic ash in shallow graves tomorrow morning, if we'll let them.

In the case of solidifying hazardous chemical wastes, the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) has set up a program called SITE (Superfund Innovative Technology Evaluation--see RHWN #150) to evaluate different kinds of glops and their abilities to solidify different kinds of hazardous wastes. The program began three years ago and will run for a decade or more. The SITE program recognizes that each kind of waste requires a different kind of glop, and many wastes can't be successfully solidified at all. Predictably, the SITE program has been unable to answer the key questions that plagued all proposals a decade earlier to solidify radioactive waste: the Congress's Office of Technology Assessment evaluated solidification technologies used in Superfund cleanups (see RHWN #87) and pointed out (a) There is no standard test for deciding whether a waste has been "successfully" solidified; and (b) There is no way to gather data on the long-term stability of a solidified waste except to wait and see what happens as time passes. In other words, a trial-and-error experiment on our children is the only way to find out if solidifying toxic wastes really works.

The garbage incinerator people don't seem to care about these insurmountable technical difficulties. They argue strenuously, in public meetings, in newspaper articles, and in flawed technical articles [1] that they have found a solution to the toxic incinerator ash problem; in fact, they argue the ash isn't really "toxic" at all, even though it has 2,500 to 6,000 parts per million (ppm) of toxic lead in it. (Some ash has upwards of 20,000 ppm lead in it.) The garbage incinerator industry is now conducting a nationwide PR campaign to convince everyone that incinerator ash has "pozzolanic" characteristics, which is to say the stuff will harden like cement, and that this will prevent the toxic metals in the ash from escaping into the environment where it would make humans sick. They have a small amount of data showing that some ash wastes, mixed with lime or cement, do harden, but they have absolutely no data on the long-term reliability of the hardening process because they have not been doing it for long. They are simply willing to wager our children's health and safety that their process will remain stable for the duration of the hazard, which is thousands of years. (What they're really betting is that they'll be gone by the time serious problems become apparent--it's the familiar "dump now, let our children pay later" principle that brought us Love Canal and every other Superfund dump.) It is a travesty of good science and engineering, and serious violation of public health principles, which demand "safety first."

By reading engineering manuals and textbooks [2] on cement, one can readily compile a list of known factors that make it impossible for cement and ash mixtures to protect public health reliably in the long run (we'll only list a few here):

1) Cement is a mixture of four main chemical compounds; to harden satisfactorily and remain strong, the four chemical compounds must be present in the proper proportions, and other chemicals (such as sulfates, and organic material), which interfere with the reactions, must NOT be present. [3]

The "aggregate" (usually gravel when cement is made on a construction site, but ash in the case of a toxic ash solidification project) must be uniform in size and chemical composition. This requirement is impossible to meet in the case of mass burn ash.

The chemical composition of incinerator ash varies widely from place to place and day to day (even hour to hour). This is a natural result of the garbage itself varying widely from place to place and day to day. One day the garbage is mostly industrial trash; another day it's full of organic matter. There is no way around this problem in a mass burn incinerator (one that burns garbage without any processing before the burn).

Other factors that cause variability in the ash are the incinerator design, the actual combustion conditions (which vary), and the air pollution controls (for example, presence or absence of lime scrubbers).

2) Incinerator ash has a highly variable salt content, and many kinds of salts interfere with the proper hardening of cement.

3) It is widely agreed that an alkaline environment must be maintained to prevent leaching of metals from ash, even solidified ash. Since rain is acid (not alkaline) by nature, rain will eventually change any alkaline landfill environment into a neutral, or slightly acidic environment, and leaching of metals will then proceed.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D. =============== [1] For example, see footnotes 1 and 2 in RHWN #191 last week.

[2] Frederick S. Merritt. STANDARD HANDBOOK FOR CIVIL ENGINEERS. Third Edition. New York: Mcgraw-hill, 1983), pgs. 5-1 through 5-15.

[3] F. M. Lea. THE CHEMISTRY OF CEMENT AND CONCRETE. Third Edition. New York: Chemical Publishing Co., 1971. See, for example, chapter 21, "The Examination of Concrete Failures" and Chapter 10, "The Setting and Hardening of Portland Cement."

Descriptor terms: incinerator ash; msw; incineration; cement; concrete; solidification; stabilization; hlw; radioactive waste; SITE program; epa; toxic waste; alternative treatment technologies;

Next Issue