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New rules target waste burners:
Chemical companies, commercial incinerators, environmental activists, cement kilns fight over air standards


May 15, 2000
Jeff Johnson
Chemical and Engineering News

Last September, after years of delay and discussion, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a final regulation that will subject several hundred facilities to a new regime of air pollution standards. Each year, the affected facilities burn a total of 3.3 million tons of hazardous waste.

In all, 232 hazardous waste combustors at 172 facilities will be covered. These include 163 on-site process incinerators, 26 commercial incinerators, 33 cement kilns, and 10 aggregate kilns.

EPA estimates the new rule will cut emissions of dioxins and furans by 70%, mercury by 55%, cadmium and lead by 88%, and particulates by 42%. The agency also estimates that releases of arsenic, beryllium, and chromium will be reduced by 75%.

The regulation will require companies to install equipment that could include filters and other devices to capture particulates and metals; systems to quickly quench hot flue gases to curb dioxin formation; and monitors to continuously measure carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon emissions, and some operating parameters.

Exactly what will be required, however, is left to the operators of covered facilities to determine, so long as they can show through compliance testing that they meet the emissions requirements.

The largest single covered industry group is chemical companies, a number of which run on-site incinerators as part of their mix of techniques to handle hazardous waste. On-site incinerators burn about half the 3.3 million tons of waste incinerated each year. The largest chemical sectors that burn hazardous waste are industrial organic facilities and makers of pesticides and agricultural chemicals, according to EPA.

Despite the years of debate, 17 parties--16 representing regulated companies and one from an environmental group--are suing over sections of the rule, EPA says. Their objections have been consolidated into one big suit, which is expected to be argued this fall in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The number of litigants will probably drop depending upon what can be wheedled out of EPA during more negotiations--because, although the rule is final, EPA is still talking and will re-propose portions of the rule, EPA and industry officials say.

The new regulation is part of EPA's waste minimization and combustion strategy, announced in 1993, early in EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner's tenure. The goal of this strategy, say EPA officials, was to reduce reliance on hazardous waste incineration and to shift industry to processes that minimize hazardous waste generation.

Applauding this view is Greenpeace's Rick Hind and other environmentalists, who would simply like incinerators shut down. "We are reducing hazardous waste now--waste minimization efforts are working," he says. "Our fear is that EPA will discourage this trend by going weak on incinerators and kilns."

Hind wants toxic chemicals out of products and encourages what he calls a "revolution in the marketplace" as companies move to closed- loop industrial processes that produce no emissions or use nontoxic feedstock. Hind argues that even the best incinerators concentrate dioxins and metals in the ash, which winds up in a landfill.

However, over the years, companies have come to integrate incinerators deeply into manufacturing processes, and a commercial economy has grown up based on burning hazardous wastes. Not long ago, EPA encouraged waste incineration. And therein lies part of the difficulty for this new regulation.

Incinerators have many supporters, one of whom is Arthur M. Sterling, chemical engineering professor at Louisiana State University. "If run correctly, incineration is a very effective way to reduce volume," he says. "The alternative is landfilling and we are running out of space, and it is not permanent. There will be leaks.

"The best alternative is process modifications to reduce waste," Sterling says. "People are working on that, but for some waste streams, incineration is the best choice."

Sterling notes, however, that the public strongly dislikes incinerators, and he acknowledges that real problems have led to the disfavor. He also notes it is nearly impossible to site a new incinerator today.

Sterling runs a pilot incinerator at LSU, and the negative climate has had a direct effect on his research--no grants. Once four researchers operated the unit, he says, and now he is the only one left. And rather than study ways to improve incineration performance, today the unit is used to generate gases and particulates that are used for health effects research.

Although EPA estimates that only 1.5% of hazardous waste is incinerated, that still means millions of tons that can generate both fights and profits.

In the byzantine world of hazardous waste regulation, money and business opportunities can be equal in importance to environmental protection. Consider kilns that use the waste for a fuel in the manufacture of aggregate and cement. They burn it along with fossil fuels, mostly coal. And they get paid to take it. The kilns charge much less than the amount commercial incinerators get to treat hazardous waste. Consequently, taking wastes that burn hot and fast is a good deal for a kiln and a generator: income for the kiln and cheaper disposal for the generator.

Most commercial incinerators, however, don't like this arrangement, nor do people living near the kilns, who worry about air emissions and have been vocal opponents of the use of hazardous waste in kilns. Both groups have fought for years to end the practice and had hoped the new rule might help them.

Along with trying to run cement kilns out of the hazardous waste business, commercial incinerator companies had hoped tough standards would drive work their way from chemical companies running on-site incinerators.

Commercial incinerators have had a tough time during the past few years due to the success of waste minimization programs and too many commercial incinerators chasing too little waste. "Too many mouths to feed" is how Paul C. Evans puts it. Evans is an analyst with Environmental Information Ltd. in Minneapolis, which tracks the hazardous waste industry.

Evans ticks off four commercial incinerators that have been mothballed in the past few years because of lack of business, but he thinks demand might be moving closer to commercial capacity. How the new rule will play out for future business, however, is a "million-dollar question," he says.

Meanwhile, commercial incinerator operators will remain disappointed because the rule is unlikely to advance their long-held dream of more business. They can console themselves with the fact that the final standards are such that many of them will have to do little to comply.

EPA estimates that the new controls will cost industry from $63 million to $73 million a year. More than three quarters of that will be paid by operators of cement kilns and on-site incinerators.

EPA predicts that only one or two cement kilns that burn hazardous waste will return to burning only fossil fuels and that 13 on-site incinerators will shut down, probably small units.

Annual cost for complying with new regulation
Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Facility Cost
Commercial incinerators $7 million
Commercial kilns $24 million
On-site incinerators $35 million
Total $66 million

Altogether, from 14,000 to 42,000 tons of hazardous waste will be shifted to commercial incinerators, EPA estimates, less than 1% of the hazardous waste incinerated annually. Considering the amount of waste affected and the number of facilities covered, EPA's plan seems to leave most of the industry relatively unscathed.

EPA estimates that average annual costs for compliance will be about $600,000 for cement kilns, $325,000 for aggregate kilns, and $250,000 for commercial and on-site incinerators.

Looking at the higher price to burn a ton of hazardous waste, EPA estimates costs will go up between $5 and $15 per ton of waste burned. Assuming companies increase prices to incinerate, this works out to a 6 to 7% price increase for kilns, which charge about $150 a ton, and a 1% increase for incinerators, which charge about $700 per ton, according to EPA.

The agency estimates that 7% of incinerators (mostly commercial), 21% of cement kilns, and no aggregate kilns will already meet the new standards.

However, this new regulation and the sector it regulates are so complicated that industry experts are unsure what the costs will really be and which sectors are likely to face the biggest impact.

Much could depend on EPA technical modifications that may change portions of the regulation, but the compliance date of September 2002 will remain the same.

To set the new emissions standards, EPA used a mechanism in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments called "maximum achievable control technology," or MACT.

MACT is a technology-based, standard-setting technique that uses emissions levels of the best operating 12% of an industrial sector to set national standards for all similar units.

Congress' idea in including MACT in the Clean Air Act was to move past endless regulatory fights over new emissions standards that were based on health impacts. Instead, the assumption behind MACT is that if an eighth of the industry can do it, so can the rest.

The law also gave EPA the option of moving beyond MACT's lowest limits, or "beyond the floor," if the agency can show that MACT standards are not protective, which it has done in some cases.

EPA has used MACT in several industry sectors over the past decade, but nobody likes how EPA applied it here.

The Cement Kiln Recycling Coalition, a trade association, is distraught about the standard for the semivolatile metals lead and cadmium. Don Davis, director of public affairs for the coalition, says that EPA, in moving beyond the floor for the kilns, has set the standard at a level not achieved by the top 12% of kilns. Moreover, he says the standard can be easily reached by incinerators and charges that EPA is favoring one industry over another.

Chemical industry officials say the most difficult standard for chemical companies to meet will be the particulate emissions standard.

The Chemical Manufacturers Association has sued EPA over this standard and others, but officials from the association would not comment on the regulation or suit. However, sources say EPA is planning to make a modification for particulates that may help some in the industry.

Greg Rigo, an environmental engineer and air pollution expert with Rigo & Rigo Associates in Cleveland, predicts implementation will be difficult for chemical companies.

"Incinerators are used for process safety, fume controls, and so forth," Rigo says. "They are tied directly into process lines. To make a modification, the line must be shut down, and no one wants to take millions of dollars of production off-line."

But he says few incinerators will shut down, as does Melvin Keener, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Waste Incineration, an incinerator trade association.

Keener warns of confusion in the years ahead. He notes that industry groups have singled out more than 100 issues they want EPA to address and it is unclear now what deals can be struck and what may happen in court.

He also notes that the regulation will be implemented in most cases by states, not EPA. Consequently, much may turn on what states do.

The one environmental group suing EPA is the Sierra Club, which is represented by Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund. Attorney James Pew says EPA misused the MACT process. He says after EPA selected the technology of the top 12%, it then picked the worst level that could be achieved with that technology.

"EPA didn't even come close to achieving what could be emitted by the top 12%," he says. "It defeated MACT's purpose."

An EPA official defends picking the so-called worst of the best. "The law says maximum achievable control technology,"stresses EPA's David Hockey, who is project director for this regulation. "We picked emissions that could be achieved."

Pew expects the technical debate on MACT to be a major focus of the lawsuit, as it has been all along. He says the large number of litigants is in fact an understatement of interest in the rule.

"During rule making, there were rooms filled with industry lawyers and lobbyists, all of whom were berating EPA for the standard," Pew says. "To understand this, you have to look at the legal industry as much as the incineration business. There are a lot of players billing time on this process. And remember, if you are fighting regulations, delay is victory."

There is one company in the U.S. that needs to do little to comply: Waste Technologies Industries (WTI), a commercial incinerator in East Liverpool,Ohio. Owned by Swiss company VonRoll and built a decade ago, WTI will meet or exceed all new emissions levels.

"When we decided to build the plant 10 years ago, we knew U.S. regulations would move up to European standards so we decided to design the plant to meet those standards," says Fred Sigg, WTI general manager. "It was easier and cheaper to do it then."

Sigg supports the new standards but wishes the dioxins level was tighter, noting that WTI emits less than half the new maximum. WTI adds activated carbon to capture dioxin and mercury emissions, something EPA considered but dropped as too expensive.

"This isn't rocket science, but our plant is cleverly engineered, using technologies that have been around for decades," he says.

Sigg doesn't mention it, but there is another reason for WTI's low emissions--its location. The plant is on a flood plain, a stone's throw from homes, and the top of its stack is but 300 yards from an elementary school that rests on a bluff above the plant.

Almost from the ribbon cutting, WTI has faced a vocal, angry, and well-organized group of community activists who have tried to shut down the site. So far they have failed, but incinerator opponents are unlikely to be satisfied with standards WTI can meet without doing much.

Still, WTI is among the world's cleanest, best run hazardous waste burners. How it navigates today's changing seas may hint at what lies ahead for other kilns and incinerators.