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Texas plant won't burn Mexican hazardous materials

A southeast Texas industrial plant is scrapping plans to import and incinerate 20,000 tons of hazardous materials from Mexico, the facility's general manager said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A southeast Texas industrial plant is scrapping plans to import and incinerate 20,000 tons of hazardous materials from Mexico, the facility's general manager said.

Veolia Environmental Services' industrial incinerator in Port Arthur — which gained national attention in 2007 for importing and burning waste from a military nerve agent — was seeking an exemption to a federal rule prohibiting the import of the chemical waste. The company has been in the application process to burn imported polychlorinated byphenyls, or PCBs, since 2006.

The company cited the economy for its decision to abandon the plan, but environmental groups claimed victory in stopping the area from becoming a "dumping ground for the world."

PCBs are chemical mixtures used widely until their production was banned in the 1970s. They've been linked to cancer and other health problems, and they remain in the environment for a long time so must be destroyed. The PCBs to be imported were from transformers and other heavy-duty electrical equipment.

Chicago-based Veolia burns about 15 tons of PCBs from around the U.S. at its Port Arthur facility each year but had hoped to tap the Mexican market, general manager Mitch Osborne said. Mexico's economy is now such that the plan no longer makes sense, he said.

"This was strictly a business decision," he said Wednesday. "It didn't have anything to do with our opposition."

Environmentalists feared the Mexican waste would be followed by waste from all over the world.

"We finally got a little victory," said Hilton Kelley, of the Community In-Power and Development Association. "We feel that we set a precedent. We sent a clear message letting Veolia know that we will not stand by and be the dumping ground for the world."

Port Arthur, located near the Louisiana Border on the Gulf of Mexico, is an industrial town where oil refineries and manufacturing plants have created large-scale pollution problems.

Veolia drew scrutiny in 2007 over its deal to incinerate about 2 million gallons of VX nerve agent waste, which was trucked from Indiana. The Army said the shipments contained only a tiny amount of VX, but environmental groups said it was much more dangerous than the Army let on.

The Environmental Protection Agency indicated in 2008 that it would approve Veolia's Mexican waste permit, but a congressional committee warned the agency then that it would "effectively create an open border" for disposing a banned chemical compound in the U.S.

Activists also allege the plant is leaking PCBs into the community.

But company environmental health and safety manager Dan Duncan said the plant — one of three commercial incinerators in the U.S. authorized to burn PCBs — has an excellent safety record. The plant destroys PCBs at a rate that's 10 times more efficient than government regulations require, Duncan said.

Osborne said the company had no indication the EPA would not approve the permit. Veolia withdrew its permit request Tuesday but still may apply for it later if the economy improves, Osborne said.

The EPA official who received Osborne's letter Tuesday, William Noggle, didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.