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---November 20, 1991---
News and resources for environmental justice.
Environmental Research Foundation
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Not all wastes can be recycled. For example Superfund cleanup wastes. These chemical leftovers from the past are sitting around waiting to leak into somebody's drinking water. The point of the Superfund program is to clean them up to protect people. But that's not easy, it's not cheap, and it's a political hot potato.

The Superfund law was passed in 1980 and Congress told EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to go out and clean up all the old chemical dumps. EPA began doing it and then realized they had no place to put the stuff they were cleaning up. So they started trucking it to Alabama and to Niagara Falls, NY, and burying it in enormous holes in the ground (landfills). That's actually what they were doing--digging up toxic soil in one location, hauling it by truck several hundred miles or more, and burying it in another hole in the ground. Hard to believe, but true.

Then the public began to catch on. In about 1983 Joel Hirschhorn of the Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) had the guts to point out that this emperor was wearing no clothes. In public Hirschhorn started saying EPA's cleanup strategy was a "shell game" and everyone immediately saw he was right. Congress realized EPA was bungling the job, got serious, and passed a new law that told EPA to "prefer permanent cleanup technologies." This may have been a mistake.

EPA took this to mean incineration. EPA likes incineration. To EPA, an incinerator looks just like a landfill. It's a machine with a hole in its face and you can throw in anything, whether it burns or not. But you say an incinerator produces toxic ash? You rename the toxic ash "special waste" and bury it a hole in the ground out back. Seriously, that's how it works.

Unfortunately, people don't trust incinerators, for good reason, so EPA's new Superfund strategy has shipwrecked on sharp rocks. Massive citizen opposition has developed at nearly every Superfund cleanup site where incineration has been proposed.

What else is there? Chemical detoxification. Set up a chemical factory (small scale) and pull apart the toxic molecules as you dig them up. This is the right approach. Unfortunately, often the wastes being dug up contain a wild mixture of glop and crud so a chemical detox unit to handle them is expensive and tricky to design and run.

What's left? Temporary cleanup. If we believe that technology will continue to produce better solutions to nasty problems like "how to detoxify mixed crud/glop," then we should store the Superfund wastes in large reinforced concrete buildings above-ground where we can satisfy ourselves that they are under control, and then wait for better technologies to develop.

This is a serious proposal. Superfund cleanups are too often stalemated because no one likes any of the available solutions. Meanwhile, real people are poisoned or are terrified of becoming poisoned while the citizenry and the EPA dance around. Superfund victims need real solutions now.

Four civil engineers from Alabama and Florida have proposed large reinforced concrete buildings for long-term waste storage.[1] For some situations--for example, some Superfund cleanups--such buildings appear to make sense.

Such buildings would be square, measuring 250 feet on a side. They would be 70 feet tall. Need more space? Put four such buildings right next to each other. They would be designed to withstand hurricanes and tornadoes. Wastes inside them could be placed in containers, or merely "bulk stored" (heaped into the open concrete sections). In Figure 1, wastes would go where the words "Load Bearing Floor" appear. The base of the building would be a 12" concrete slab. The first floor would hold no wastes but would contain inspection walkways so people could satisfy themselves than nothing was leaking from above. Leachate would be collected, treated by ion exchange, activated carbon absorption, and solidification, then returned to storage in the building.

The buildings could not be placed over sinkholes or over areas where shaft and tunnel mining had occurred, nor over highly compressible soils that would allow different amounts of settling beneath different parts of the building (the floor slab might crack). But except for that, such buildings could be sited almost anywhere. Of course they'd be ugly. But why kid ourselves? Superfund wastes are ugly. I'd emboss the exterior walls with huge skulls and crossbones to get the message across to enthusiasts and critics alike--this building is a deadly tomb for technical hubris and dumb ideas.

Separating such buildings from human communities by half a mile or so would be a good idea. Operator error could, under some circumstances, mix incompatible wastes and cause an explosion--and human error can never be completely avoided. Errors are what make us humans and not computers.

Such buildings would produce no water pollution, no air pollution (a blower with a charcoal filter would keep the interior under negative pressure, so air wouldn't escape outward). Compartmentalization of the wastes would allow an inventory to be kept, so particular wastes could be retrieved when recycling technologies improved.

Such buildings should last for many decades, perhaps as long as a century. The cost of a 250 foot square building 70 feet tall would be roughly $6 million. Considerably cheaper and safer than a landfill. Cheaper and safer than an incinerator for many wastes.

The authors of this idea want everyone to adopt these buildings as substitutes for hazardous waste landfills, substitutes for municipal solid waste landfills, substitutes for incinerator ash monofills. To us, they make best sense for Superfund cleanup wastes where you can't make the argument that we should avoid the creation of the waste in the first place. By definition, Superfund wastes already exist.

The original newsletter contained a figure that is not reproducible online. The caption reads: Sectional Perspective of Structure Showing Base Slab, Inspection Walkways, and Double-Tee Roof Sections.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D. =============== [1] James V. Walters, Tola B. Moffett, Jerry D. Sellers, and W. Adrian Lovell, "Use of Elevated, Concrete Building for 'Sanitary Landfills,' Monofills, and Cogeneration Facilities." JOURNAL OF RESOURCE MANAGEMENT AND TECHNOLOGY Vol. 17, No. 2 (April, 1989), pgs. 123-130.

Descriptor terms: waste disposal technologies; waste treatment technologies; hazardous waste; superfund; epa; landfilling; alternative treatment technologies; ota; joel hirschhorn; incineration; chemical detoxification; above-ground concrete storage buildings;

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