Aug. 18–Oregon regulators are letting a landfill operator two hours east of Portland send poisonous mercury into the air without the environmental controls that companies face in other states, a leading competitor alleges.
Chemical Waste Management’s landfill in Arlington accepts hazardous waste from oil refineries and heats it up in a process that reclaims oil, which can be resold. If not strictly controlled, processing oil waste can also release mercury, lead, arsenic and hydrochloric acid.
When the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality approved an air pollution permit for the oil operation in 2016, it contained no mention of mercury or limitations on how much the plant can process. Neither does a separate hazardous waste permit currently under review.
TD*X Associates of Texas says that’s an unfair advantage that will allow the Arlington landfill to take away customers and turn Oregon into a magnet for mercury-contaminated waste.
TD*X was fined by the U.S. EPA $788,000 in 2012 for operating in a manner similar to what Oregon is allowing in Arlington. The company installed additional pollution controls and must limit how much mercury-laden waste it takes in.
Now TD*X has launched an effort, including a 202-page research paper, to ensure the Arlington facility faces the same restrictions it does some 2,000 miles away on the Gulf Coast.
Jackie Lang, a Chemical Waste Management spokeswoman, said mercury is “not present in high concentrations in the waste we’re managing and recycling,” which comes from petroleum refinery storage tank bottoms.
Jennifer Flynt, an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman, said the Arlington landfill is in compliance with the law. In a written statement, she said her agency concluded the Arlington landfill wasn’t subject to the same rules as the Texas facility because they are “different in critical ways.”
She did not explain how they are different.
Mercury is a poison that accumulates in fish and poses well-known threats to human health. The landfill in Arlington is seven miles from the Columbia, at the center of land ceded by tribes to the United States in their 1855 treaties.
The state environmental agency has dealt lightly with mercury polluters in the past.
Nearly a decade ago, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality came under intense scrutiny for going easy on an Eastern Oregon cement plant, allowing it to release poisonous mercury into the air with little oversight or restrictions.
At other hazardous waste oil recyclers in the country, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cracked down during the Obama administration, levying huge fines to force compliance with federal hazardous waste laws and requiring strict pollution limits.
But now, under President Trump’sEPA, Oregon has been allowed to interpret those same federal hazardous waste laws to allow the Arlington landfill to avoid strict controls.
The move has concerned the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Environmental groups are also worried, saying they are shocked to see what happened at the cement kiln playing out yet again.
“I don’t trust that the state knows how much mercury could be coming out of this facility,” said Mary Peveto, president of Neighbors for Clean Air, a Portland nonprofit. “The state again seems to be complacent.”
In response to questions from The Oregonian/OregonLive, an EPA spokeswoman said the federal agency “will be working with Oregon DEQ, the lead agency, to evaluate this facility and ensure it is permitted correctly.”
Carl Palmer, a TD*X managing partner, said mercury is an inescapable contaminant in oil refinery waste and other oily sources accepted by hazardous waste landfills like Arlington. Whether it’s sludge from oil refining or the remnants of natural gas pipeline cleanings, “they all have mercury,” Palmer said.
Gregg Meyers, a TD*X field services manager, said if Chemical Waste Management is handling storage tank wastes, then inherently “mercury and chlorine are present at levels that are concerning.”
He said his company has data from other waste processors to prove it, and that he’s willing to share the numbers with anyone who wants to see them.
Chemical Waste Management has reported varying levels of mercury pollution in Arlington. It reported 2.2 pounds of mercury emissions in 2017 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It recently reported no emissions to the Department of Environmental Quality.
Palmer, the TD*X official, said he has studied the Arlington landfill’s design. Based on its size and the mercury content of material that other operations process, Palmer estimated the oil recycling operation could be emitting 1,500 pounds of mercury annually.
Palmer said almost all of the mercury that went into the operation would emerge as “uncontrolled” air pollution — before it “rains down in a river or on land.”
Palmer said his company has spent about $2.8 million paying the EPA’s fine and installing new pollution controls in Texas. Because of new strict limits on the mercury, customers now pay a fee for every pound of mercury in their waste.
Those same customers will be able to avoid the surcharge by sending their mercury-contaminated oil to Oregon, Palmer said.
The Oregon landfill does not levy a mercury surcharge, said Lang, the landfill spokeswoman.
Palmer said there is no substantive difference between his operation and the one in Arlington.
Oregon also appears to be taking a lighter touch than regulators in Louisiana had with Chemical Waste Management. When the company proposed the same type of oil waste processing there, the U.S. EPA told Louisiana regulators in 2016 that they needed to ensure the company followed strict rules — like the ones TD*X faces.
— Rob Davis
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