Toxic Malaise

The EPA tanks a PCB alert.

Rollins Band, with Apartment 26 the Odeon, 1295 Old River Road, the Flats 8 p.m., Sunday, April 2. $12 Advance, $14 Day of Show, 216-241-5555 and 330-945-9400
When it comes to environmental notices, the Sierra Club's Glenn Landers believes bigger is better.
When it comes to environmental notices, the Sierra Club's Glenn Landers believes bigger is better.
Six to eight times a month, large trucks from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and other neighboring states lumber down East 49th Street in Cuyahoga Heights, past factories and small homes with manicured lawns. These rigs, specially fitted with large steel pans on their flatbeds, carry heavy equipment wrapped in pig blankets and plastic. Their destination is the General Electric Apparatus Service Center, a massive aluminum and brick building located just across the street from the Metroparks' new Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation.

There, the trucks are carefully unloaded in a section of the facility with an epoxy-sealed floor, where their cargo is combined and stored with other loads before being hauled away. It would be just another routine operation in the industrial valley -- if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hadn't recently decided it wants the community to know what is being delivered by the trucks and stored inside the building.

The funny thing is, those trucks have been coming and going for more than 10 years, carrying exactly the same cargo -- the highly toxic chemical PCB.

And the public hasn't had a clue.

Primarily a repair shop for locomotive and other large motors, the GE plant on East 49th Street also operates a bulk storage facility for PCB waste. Though no longer manufactured, PCBs -- polychlorinated biphenyls -- are still found as an oily liquid in old industrial electrical equipment, such as transformers, capacitors, and lighting systems.

"In 1990 the EPA requested that everybody that [stores PCBs] submit an application," says Ted Byster, manager of the facility's PCB services. "We've been waiting for final approval ever since."

The facility has been operating under an interim permit for the past decade, with regular monitoring by the Ohio EPA. Last month, the federal EPA took out two ads in the Neighborhood News, a small (20,000 circulation) free weekly distributed in southeast Cleveland and Garfield Heights, announcing that GE has a pending application "to commercially store PCB waste." The agency would hold a public hearing, the ad said, only if "significant public interest" was expressed within 30 days.

Understandably, local environmentalists were upset by the agency's half-hearted attempt to solicit community input. Glenn Landers of the Sierra Club's Midwest office says few people saw the ads, and no environmental groups were sent a letter about the notices -- a courtesy commonly extended by the EPA.

"My issue is with notification, not substance," says Landers. "We have all these rules that say the public should be involved. The EPA should be taking more effective steps to involve the community in permitting actions."

Kae Lee of the EPA's Waste, Pesticides, and Toxics Division, which is responsible for reviewing GE's application, says the agency is not legally required to issue public notices regarding PCB storage permits, but tries to do so anyway. Precisely where is up to the EPA.

"It is our policy to always put an ad in the community paper where people are most affected," says Karen Thompson, a regional EPA spokesperson based in Chicago. "We don't put notices in larger papers like The Plain Dealer because the ads cost too much."

Landers contacted the EPA after receiving a call from one person who saw the notice. Lee, he claims, told him to call back in a week. "If I would have done that, I would have missed the comment period," Landers complains about the bureaucratic brush-off. "To have legal standing, you have to respond within the comment period."

Landers sent a letter to the EPA requesting that it extend the comment period on GE's permit and run ads in more widely distributed newspapers. He also contacted the office of Congressman Dennis Kucinich, whose staff called the EPA as well.

As a result, the agency has agreed to extend the comment period an additional 30 days, place more ads in the Neighborhood News, and contact environmental groups. If enough people respond, the EPA will be forced to hold a meeting to discuss the details of GE's application.

Landers has no specific complaints about GE's operation -- yet. What he does have is a lot of questions about the facility's ability to handle potential disasters, including leaking, transportation accidents, and fire.

Byster is ready for them. He claims his facility has met or exceeded all safety and environmental regulations. "I'll be happy to take a group of people through the facility," he says. "We have not had any spills or violations regarding safety. Just look at our track record over the last 10 years."

Lee says he is unaware of any violations, deferring any further questions to the Ohio EPA.

"We have done inspections [at the GE plant] and have always found them in compliance," says Jim Leach, spokesman for the Ohio EPA.

According to Byster, all of the toxic materials at the GE facility are handled within a special "containment area," which includes the epoxy-sealed floor and is large enough to hold "both PCB storage tanks if they explode." Trucking companies operating out of the facility are licensed to haul dangerous materials, he says, and the Cleveland Fire Department is aware of the facility's fire plan.

As for the long approval process, Lee blames the number of applications, their complexity, and the limited resources of his office.

"We have to have all kinds of information from the GE facility. It takes time," says Lee, who insists that the delay has not weakened inspection procedures at the site. "We have been very stringent with GE. We have put in the application for approval that they must inspect [the PCB tanks] every day. They did not want to inspect every day, but we made that part of approval process and negotiations."

Ironically, since the permit process began 10 years ago, Byster says that GE has been storing and transporting decreasing amounts of PCB waste, simply because less of the toxic chemical is in use with each passing year.

"We are doing less than before," he says. "Our business has been downsized."

By the time the EPA gets its act together, it may well be gone.

Mark Naymik can be reached at [email protected].

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