Louisiana Challenges Toxic Burning, EPA Supports Alternatives
WISCONSIN (April 13, 2020) — Louisiana is expected to deny renewing a permit for a commercial facility to continue open-burn/open detonation (OB/OD) of hazardous waste, including military munitions, as EPA has recently been supporting shifting away from open-air burning of waste explosives in favor of less-polluting alternative treatments.
While OB/OD operations have been declining, 60 facilities — both in the private and public sectors — were still operating as of November 2018, according to EPA.
The agency is now “in the early stages of developing further guidance” on how to apply information from a report it issued in December on alternatives to OB/OD for treating energetic hazardous waste, an EPA spokesperson says. “In addition, we are also conducting research into closure of OB/OD sites and plan to publish case studies with our findings,” the spokesperson says.
State regulators are seeing both public pressure to reject OB/OD permits and EPA’s favoring of treatment alternatives as they weigh permit renewals. In the latest action, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) March 20 ended public comment on its “intent to deny” a hazardous waste operating permit renewal application for the Clean Harbors Colfax facility’s OB/OD operations.
EPA is backing LDEQ’s position “to require a complete review and analysis of alternative technologies before issuing a final permit decision,” the EPA spokesperson says, adding that permit actions such as renewal requests are “key opportunities” to evaluate alternative treatments. The spokesperson says EPA in general is encouraging its “regulatory partners” to evaluate and put in place alternatives to OB/OD.
Such alternatives include closed detonation methods, as well as chemical destruction and decontamination methods.
In a March 20 comment letter, 51 environmental and community groups from across the country urge LDEQ to go through with denying the renewal. Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (CSWAB), Central Louisiana Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Environment, Clean Water Action, California Communities Against Toxics and a host of other groups in their letter cite the availability of safer alternatives to OB/OD, federal and state laws requiring alternative treatment methods if available, and the “excessive risk to human health and the environment” associated with OB/OD.
For instance, they note that federal law requires the use of “safer advanced technologies.” Under federal waste law, they say that open burning of hazardous waste is barred except for waste explosives, which is defined as waste that may detonate, and bulk military propellants that cannot be safely disposed of “through other modes of treatment.”
“[W]e urge you to immediately end the indefensible practice of continued open-air burning and detonation of hazardous waste at Colfax and in Louisiana in favor of safer non-thermal alternatives,” they write.
In a March 20 press release, CSWAB says the 700-acre Colfax facility is one of the few remaining commercial sites still using open-air burning to treat hazardous waste. It says the facility “burns and detonates more than 500,000 pounds of toxic reactive material in an open-air setting each year.” LDEQ earlier this year stated it intends to deny the permit renewal due to the facility’s “‘failure to adequately consider alternatives to the continued open burning/open detonation of the waste treated at its Colfax facility,’” the release says, citing the state.
EPA says Colfax receives waste from off-site and treats munitions, propellants, high explosives, warheads, and other military items as well as non-military materials such as undeployed air bags and fireworks. A Defense Department (DOD) spokesman did not respond to questions on whether DOD submitted comments to LDEQ on its intent to deny the permit renewal.
Asked whether LDEQ’s intended permit denial will be a turning point away from OB/OD, CSWAB’s Laura Olah says, “I think it’s very important” as EPA is starting to encourage states to evaluate alternatives. Further, she cites EPA’s December reporton alternative treatment technologies. While the report does not set any new requirements for states, it advises states to look at alternative treatment technologies.
At the same time, she says it has been difficult to secure a national policy change on OB/OD, so community groups have instead focused on pushing against the practice during permit renewals.
The December report, “Alternative Treatment Technologies To Open Burning and Open Detonation of Energetic Hazardous Wastes,” says both EPA and the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) have found that safe alternatives to OB/OD exist and are being relied on to dispose of and divert energetic hazardous waste in place of OB/OD. The agency says there is a “wide range” of available alternatives that satisfy the safety mandates that were the main driver for using OB/OD.
“Nevertheless, OB/OD is still being used despite the availability of suitable and safe alternatives, in both the public and private sectors. Therefore, the information in this report should be useful to the regulated community in exploring alternatives to OB/OD,” EPA says. “Likewise, it should be useful to regulators in engaging in conversation with facilities on moving toward enclosed technologies for the treatment of energetic hazardous waste, with a focus on protection of human health and the environment over the long term.”
EPA’s report leaves the door open for OB/OD in some cases, saying it understands the techniques will continue to be needed when safe alternatives do not exist.
At the same time, the agency says it “plans to develop additional guidance on how [its] findings can be applied when considering treatment technologies for energetic hazardous waste, for example, in the permitting process.”
While it recognizes that alternative technology facilities would likely be less costly than an OB/OD site to close and clean up since repeated OB/OD operations will require extensive cleanup, the report notes that NAS did not go so far as to factor in the total life-cycle cost of OB/OD in its analysis. These additional costs would include site investigation activities, corrective action, cleanup, closing a site and post-closure care including land use controls, EPA says.
It also notes that NAS “did not analyze in detail an issue that EPA considers to be a chief concern related to OB/OD, which is the potential for significant soil and groundwater contamination, and the resulting cleanup obligations.” It adds, “Acknowledgment of the need to factor in cleanup obligations associated with a treatment technology is essential from EPA’s perspective.”
The agency also says that while DOD has boosted its use of resource recovery and reuse, and contained technologies, “it still relies on OB/OD to demilitarize significant portions of its demil stockpile,” including excess, obsolete and unserviceable munitions.
Two years ago, EPA sought data from DOD, asking in a March 2018 letter for assistance in locating records and plans on DOD OB/OD sites closing or that have been closed.
“Currently, the EPA has no national guidance on recommended procedures to assess, monitor, and clean up OB/OD sites, nor metrics to achieve clean closure of OB/OD units,” then-EPA Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery Director Barnes Johnson wrote to DOD’s environment chief. “This lack of standardized procedures may lead to more challenging and costly closures.”
He added: “Considering that more than 50% of the [Resource Conservation & Recovery Act] OB/OD units have been or are being cleaned up and closed, we feel this situation is ripe for gathering information to help inform the development of recommended procedures.”
Report by Suzanne Yohannan, Inside Washington Publishers, April 2020.
• CSWAB National Letter Calling for END to Toxic Burns in Colfax Louisiana 20 March 2020
• EPA Final Report on Alternatives to Open Burning Detonation Dec 2019
• EPA to Maureen Sullivan DOD Correspondence OB OD 8 March 2018
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