Report of PCBs at Asarco disputed

By Chris Roberts – El Paso Times

An industrial chemical banned in 1979 for its harmful health effects was detected in a small pool of water at Asarco, but experts disagree about its significance.

For decades, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were used at the century-old smelter as a cooling fluid in transformers, switches, capacitors and other electrical equipment.

A group of former employees has asserted that Asarco records do not account for scores of 55-gallon drums containing tens of thousands of gallons of PCB-contaminated oil. And they say that contents of unmarked 55-gallon drums regularly were burned in a smelting furnace at the site, which would contaminate the furnace, its products and, through the smokestack, other equipment that is currently being dismantled and sold to support the cleanup.

Those ex-employees, through their attorney, Verónica Carbajal, had been requesting that the furnace, a smelting byproduct called matte, soils and wastewater be tested for PCBs and other toxic pollutants.

The other pollutants — specifically furans and dioxins — could have been produced from burning PCBs and are toxic also, Carbajal said.

Roberto Puga, the trustee in charge of the $52 million cleanup, said engineers believe that burning PCBs in the furnace would have been physically impossible, and even if they were somehow injected into the furnace, the high temperatures would have reduced those chemicals to harmless components.

They expected to find PCBs in some soil samples, but those are localized and would not lead to widespread site contamination, Puga said.

“From a physics point of view, we find the story to be unbelievable,” Puga said. “We don’t think there were PCB oils that were being routinely or non-routinely burned.”

Scott Brown, a vice president with Malcolm Pirnie, a contractor working on the cleanup, said records indicate Asarco did use companies certified to dispose of the toxic materials.

“It appears from the re cords review we have done that they were using practices consistent with the requirements of the (state and federal environmental regulation) agencies,” Brown said.

Nonetheless, in 1994, the EPA fined Asarco $19,500 for improperly handling items containing PCBs, which included inadequate record-keeping, improper labeling, lack of inspections and unsafe storage practices.

And in late May, state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, sent a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requesting the same tests sought by the former employees.

“It is extremely likely that contaminants are present in the reverberatory furnace as well as the soil, groundwater and air emissions generated by remediation,” Rodríguez wrote.

“If this is the case, the grave risk to workers and surrounding areas triggers immediate modification of the remediation pro cess to include strict adherence to decontamination protocols required at sites where PCBs were burned.”

A letter in July to Carbajal from the TCEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency detailed the results of three samples taken at the site, one of which “did indicate the presence of PCBs.”

That sample was taken in a “small pool of rinse water that had collected on the ground,” the letter said.

“The plant has something like 20 electrical installations that had electrical equipment containing PCBs,” Puga said. “That is the mostly likely genesis of any PCBs. With old electrical equipment, there is some leakage over the decades that we do find in the soils.”

Carbajal said it is possible the PCBs found were removed from the surface of contaminated material during a pressure wash and urged the testing of sediments in the rinse water, which generally is stored in a steel tank on the site.

And if PCBs are baked onto the metal, they would not easily be removed, even with solvents, she said.

A follow-up letter to Carbajal from environmental regulators states that the positive test was for a specific type of PCB, indicating it was from a specific piece of equipment “rather than a mingling of oils from a variety of PCB sources.”

Former Asarco employees have pointed out areas where barrels of contaminated oil were kept and apparently some were crushed, allowing leakage into the soil. Those areas recently were tested, Puga said, and another round of testing will follow.

The results for the first tests are expected in about a month, Brown said.

A report on the possibility that PCBs were burned in the furnace will be released in the near future, Puga said.

That report examined the operation of the furnace, taking into account volumes of material processed, temperatures, how long it takes materials to move through the furnace and other details based on Asarco records and specifications for the furnace, said Richard Murphy, a geochemistry expert with Malcolm Pirnie.

In the first place, he said, the temperatures involved likely would cause either a violent backfire or an explosion inside the furnace when the cooler oil hit temperatures as high as 2,700 degrees.

Secondly, material inserted into the furnace takes between 20 and 40 seconds before it exits, he said. At those temperatures, PCBs would be completely incinerated in two seconds or less, he said.

Furans and dioxins would be created only if the PCBs were burned at much lower temperatures, he said.

Records show the existence of 55-gallon drums, Murphy said, but they contained pig iron, which was used to help separate out the valuable metals.

“Using an abundance of caution and in keeping with the promises we’ve made to the community, we took the extra step,” Puga said of the report.

The trust has spent about $100,000 to test, analyze and evaluate PCB contamination at the site, he said.

Those conclusions are based on assumptions and incomplete data, said Wilma Subra, a che mist whose Louisiana-based company has advised community groups on environmental issues for 30 years.

“We feel there’s enough indication that there’s a possible contamination problem and there should be (more) testing,” said Subra, who is working with the former employees.

But, so far, neither state nor federal regulators have directed Puga to test the furnace, its byproducts or soil in the area for PCBs and other contaminants.

“The trustee is doing a good job under some very difficult circumstances,” said Samuel Coleman, director of Superfund for EPA’s Region 6, which includes Texas.

“There’s been extensive sampling for PCBs in a number of ways and it’s been found in very limited circumstances and in low concentrations. (The samples) ultimately are very likely to show what we know is already there, which may or may not be an efficient use of very scarce resources.

“If ultimately we’re convinced some sampling needs to be done, we’ll discuss that with Mr. Puga,” Coleman said.

Chris Roberts may be reached at chrisr@elpasotimes.com; 546-6136.