EPA Questions Military’s Handling of PCBs

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants answers to dozens of long-standing questions about the handling of PCB-contaminated wastes at Badger Army Ammunition Plant and other U.S. Army production facilities nationwide.  In a July 7 letter to the U.S. Army, the EPA asks for a detailed response to questions about the status of demolition of buildings, management and storage of PCB wastes, research on destruction or removal of paint, and operation of decontamination ovens.

In addition to Badger, Army facilities that the EPA has identified as having PCB contamination include Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant in Kansas, Iowa Army Ammunition Plant, Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant in Nebraska, Kansas Army Ammunition Plant and the Ravenna Arsenal in Ohio.  Activities at as many as 28 closing Army ammunition production facilities with a total of number of more than 16,000 buildings and structures could be affected.

The EPA inquiry comes as good news to community activists who have been challenging the military’s use of thermal treatment to decontaminate objects that contain PCBs, lead and other toxins.

“It took 6 years of dedicated work to get this issue to the forefront,” said Laura Olah, Executive Director of Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (CSWAB). “The EPA’s action is a critical first step in protecting nearby families and workers from exposure to PCBs and other toxins that are being handled and disposed of as part of base closure and realignment.”

The decontamination oven, located on the west side of Badger Army Ammunition Plant near the Bluffview community, is an example of an uncontrolled and unpermitted source of toxic emissions caused by the thermal treatment of contaminated metal objects.

Early in 2008, Badger provided state and federal regulators with test results for paint samples taken from cross sections of plant equipment and piping that were analyzed for both lead and PCBs.  The Army reported lead concentrations as high as 260,000 parts per million (ppm).  By comparison, lead paint is defined as having concentrations greater than 5,000 ppm.

The Army also reported PCB concentrations as high as 76,000 ppm in paint samples  Paint containing PCB concentrations greater than 50 ppm is regulated by the EPA as “PCB bulk product waste” and the decontamination oven is considered a form of disposal subject to regulation if used to decontaminate any materials with such paint.

The oven uses heat to degrade potential explosive residues on pipes, valves, and other equipment before it is sold as salvage.  Equipment is placed into the oven and the temperature is raised to 450° F for several hours – a process that could volatilize PCBs.  Fugitive emissions are released directly to the open air and surrounding environment as the oven has no air emissions controls.  Testing near a former oven at Badger found elevated levels of PCBs in surrounding soils.

The federal Toxics Substances Control Act gives EPA the authority to regulate PCBs.  Once in the environment, PCBs do not readily break down and therefore may remain for long periods of time cycling between air, water, and soil.  PCBs have been demonstrated to cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system.

Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (CSWAB) was organized in 1990 when rural families near Wisconsin’s Badger Army Ammunition Plant learned that private drinking water wells were polluted with high levels of cancer-causing solvents.  The group continues to serve as a local watchdog and national leader on military cleanups.

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