Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Hazardous Waste: An Intractable Problem', The Bulletin, 30 July 1991, pp92-96

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

At the recent NSW State election voters were confronted with the choice of voting for the "No Toxic Incinerator" Party in the Upper House. This was no greenie Party, but a political manifestation of dissatisfaction amongst conservative voters in rural NSW over the Greiner government's decision to lumber them with a hazardous waste incinerator that urban dwellers didn't want. As the election drew nearer and the threat of a swing against the Nationals loomed, National Party leader, Wal Murray, broke with the Liberals and stated his opposition to the proposed incinerator. He voiced the concern of many country folk when he asked, "If the incinerator is so safe, why can't it be built in Sydney?"

More than 11 000 tonnes of "intractable" wastes are stored in Australia but most of it is in Sydney, about 80% at ICI's Botany complex. "Intractable" is an Australian expression used to refer to hazardous organochlorine wastes which cannot be disposed of safely in Australia at the present time. Apart from PCBs which were banned from importation into Australia in the late 1970s, intractable wastes include organochlorine pesticides (some of which are still being imported into Australia) as well as chemical industry wastes.

ICI is the main generator of intractable wastes, producing more than 400 tonnes each year in its solvents plant. The solvents plant produces carbon tetrachloride which is a feedstock for the production of CFCs. CFCs are being phased out because they are depleting the ozone layer and ICI intends to close its solvents plant in 1992. Government authorities expect that no more intractable waste will be produced after 1992 and the incinerator would only have to operate for ten years because of the small quantities of hazardous wastes involved. Environmentalists fear that once incineration of waste starts it will not stop.

There have been several attempts by State governments in Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory as well as NSW to site hazardous waste incinerators over the last two decades but they have all failed. In 1987 the Federal government joined forces with the New South Wales and Victorian state governments to establish a national incinerator. They appointed a four person Joint Taskforce on Intractable Waste to find an acceptable site and to conduct a public consultation programme that would ensure that the public and the environment movement approved.

Three years later the New South Wales-Victoria border town of Corowa, was declared the site of the proposed incinerator and it immediately became the centre of widespread controversy. Despite three years of public consultation most of the 4,500 people of Corowa claimed they had never been consulted and 3500 angry people attended a public meeting in October 1990, many spilling out into the street and watching the four hour meeting on a video mounted outside the hall. Local pressure mounted, 17,000 signatures were collected on a petition, and in November the Greiner government backed down saying it had been advised that Corowa was an unacceptable location because of its proximity to the Murray River.

Seven areas, selected by the Taskforce, remain under investigation. They are in Moree, Walgett, Kempsey, Musswellbrook, Parkes and Cobar. In an unusual liaison farming people from these areas are now turning to environmental groups such as Greenpeace for help. Greenpeace is opposed to the incineration of hazardous wastes worldwide because it encourages the continued production of hazardous wastes and because they believe incineration is unsafe. They say incinerators emit toxic chemicals emissions because all the waste is not burnt at a uniformly high temperature and because molecules recombine in the incinerator to form new chemicals. Solid residues, which can be up to 29 per cent of the volume of wastes, also contain traces of toxic material and when they are buried can leach into groundwater and nearby waterways.

The Waste Management Authority of NSW argues that hazardous waste incineration can be quite safe. It has told local residents near the short-listed sites that the proposed incinerator will meet the toughest environmental standards in the world. It says that annual emissions of dioxin will be less than those from an average bush fire.

Environmentalists and country people do not have the same optimism as the Waste Management Authority that a NSW incinerator will be managed and operated smoothly and without accident or mishap, especially as the Sydney Water Board is likely to take responsibility for its running. The operations of the Waste Management Authority will come under the jurisdiction of the Water Board when the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is formed later this year and takes over the regulatory functions of the Waste Management Authority.

The Water Board, through its mismanagement of Sydney's sewage disposal, has gained an unenviable record with respect to keeping toxic discharges out of the environment. Yet good management of an incinerator can be far more important to public and environmental health than the design of the technology and how efficiently it works under trial conditions. The Science Advisory Board to the US Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that accidental spills during transfer operations, emissions from valves and minor ruptures "may release as much or more toxic materials to the environment than the direct emissions."

Even the chemical giant, ICI, has questioned the way the proposed incinerator is going to be operated. They are concerned about the Taskforce's decision to burn a range of other hazardous wastes with the intractable wastes in the one rotary kiln incinerator. These additional wastes, which are currently landfilled, include paint and paint resins, organic solvents, oily wastes and non-organochlorine pesticides. They are being produced at a rate of 12 000 tonnes per year in NSW. The taskforce pointed out that these wastes, which are far more flammable than intractable wastes, would help the mixture to burn. However, ICI wrote to the Taskforce in 1989 pointing out that its 9000 tonnes of intractable wastes had "unusual physical and chemical properties which could not be safely and innocuously destroyed in any known conventional rotary kiln". The ICI wastes contain up to 80 per cent of chlorine by weight, well above the 10% limit generally imposed on rotary kiln incinerators. They pointed out that the extra chlorine could increase the probability of formation of toxic chemicals such as dioxins. Their recommendation that two incinerators be built, one designed especially to deal with ICI wastes and another for other types of wastes, has not taken up.

The Waste Management Authority has since decided that another range of wastes will also be fed into the proposed incinerator; halons, which are used in fire extinguishers, and CFCs. The decision has raised new doubts among environmentalists about the viability of an incinerator as the emissions from burning these chemicals are fiercely corrosive and not only attack the lining of an incinerator but also are highly toxic to plant life.

The proposal to burn large quantities of CFCs and halons in a general purpose incinerator differs from normal practice everywhere else in the world. There are a few specially designed incinerators overseas that burn only CFCs but the burning of CFCs in hazardous waste incinerators is rare. One of the problems with burning CFCs with other wastes is that it becomes more difficult to control the toxic chemicals. In the US hazardous waste incinerators cannot legally burn more than 5% CFCs. The Waste Management Authority is planning to burn 80,000 tonnes of CFCs over ten years in a total waste stream of 150,000 tonnes. That's more than 50% CFCs!.

The decision to burn CFCs and halons is a surprising one for other reasons too. The Taskforce admitted in its final report that incineration of CFCs was not strictly necessary because the recycling and substitution of CFCs ,while they are being phased out, would prevent a stockpile forming. Under the Montreal Protocol, Australia has agreed to reduce CFC consumption and between 1986 and 1990, reduced importation and production by about 50% to 8000 tonnes in 1990. Graham Bailey, Manager of Robinair Australia, a firm which recycles CFCs, is incredulous that the Waste Management Authority expects to have to destroy 80,000 tonnes of CFCs. CFCs are becoming increasingly valuable as they are phased out, he says.

The idea of continuing to produce and import CFCs whilst making provision for their destruction over the next ten years directly contradicts the Australian government's public commitment to waste minimisation and recycling. And yet the Montreal Protocol encourages such an attitude because it allows countries to continue production of CFCs as long as they are destroying them in like quantities; they can get "production credits" for destroying CFCs.

The main beneficiaries of this situation are the manufacturers of CFCs. The US EPA claims the cost of destroying CFCs and producing replacements is higher than the cost of recycling them since destruction costs about the same as recycling. However if the government pays the cost of destruction then the manufacturers will be able to continue making a profit from producing them and recycling will therefore be less profitable. The addition of CFCs to the waste stream of the proposed incinerator will also improve the economic viability of an incinerator. The volumes of waste being disposed of by the incinerator will need to be maintained at a reasonable level for its lifetime to justify the heavy capital investment of around $50 million. This will reduce the incentive for recycling CFCs and other types of wastes.

Until now the absence of a high temperature incinerator in Australia has encouraged the recycling and the minimisation of waste. Between 1977 and 1988, ICI developed recycling methods that reduced the waste from its ethylene dichloride plant by 3000 tonnes a year through recycling. The ethylene dichloride plant produces feedstocks for the production of polyvinylchloride, or PVC. In other countries, waste from similar plants is automatically incinerated.

The absence of an incinerator has also encouraged research into alternative methods of destroying intractable wastes. ICI has been investigating alternative methods since the mid-1970s and the University of New South Wales and the CSIRO have run similar research programmes for at least five years. Environmentalists say that this research is now under threat. They cite the work of Associate Professor James Beattie, at the University of Sydney, who together with Dr Robert Kaziro, has developed a method of breaking down intractable waste at low temperatures, typically less than 100çC. Beattie and Kaziro invented the Sydox process which uses ruthenium as a catalyst to oxidise the waste. Teams of chemical engineering students at the University of Sydney, under the supervision of Dr Wayne Davies, have been working on scaling up the Sydox process but progress has come to a halt because funds have dried up.

"Clearly there is now no incentive for Australian industry to develop alternatives because they will be required by law to send all organochlorine waste to the high temperature incinerator", says Beattie. He argues that their work has shown that organochlorine wastes are not "intractable". He says that within five years, given sufficient funding, scientists and technologists could develop methods for breaking down intractable wastes in moderate conditions rather than "using the sledge-hammer approach of a high temperature incinerator."

At the University of New South Wales, researchers are investigating supercritical fluid technology as an alternative to incineration of intractable wastes. A supercritical fluid is a fluid kept under pressure so that it behaves like a liquid although above its boiling point. Associate Professor Neil Foster is developing a process, patented by the international consortium Modar Technology, that uses supercritical water to dissolve intractable wastes. The water is heated to between 450çC and 550çC and kept under pressure. Oxygen is mixed in and the intractable wastes are decomposed. Modar claims its technology is as effective as incineration. As with incineration, toxic chemicals could be emitted, but Foster argues that toxic compounds are less likely to form at these temperatures. Hazardous waste incinerators operate at temperatures well above 1000çC.

Western military authorities are so impressed by this technology that they invited Foster to attend a NATO sponsored advanced research workshop in Leeds, UK, last year to discuss supercritical fluid technology as an alternative method of disposing of chemical weapons. This followed increasing opposition in the Pacific to incineration of chemical weapons on Johnston Atoll and in the US to chemical weapon incineration there.

Dr Rama Ramakrishnan, a project manager at the CSIRO, is heading a team that is developing another alternative to incineration, plasma arc technology. This uses an electric current to break apart the molecules of intractable waste at temperatures between 10,000 and 20,000çC. Unlike a combustion process the decomposition of the wastes occurs in the absence of oxygen and, according to Ramakrishnan, this reduces the chances of toxic chemicals forming.

CSIRO is currently negotiating with Nufarm, a chemicals company based in Melbourne, to design and build the world's first commercial waste disposal system based on this technology. Ramakrishnan hopes to have the system, which can treat up to 3 tonnes of waste per year, installed by the end of this year. He is unwilling to speculate whether the CSIRO would have had this chance to demonstrate its technology if an incinerator had been available. However, he points out that the plasma arc furnace promises to be cheaper for Nufarm than transporting wastes to an incinerator in NSW.

The plasma arc furnace is not used anywhere else in the world for commercial purposes, says Ramakrishnan, and although Westinghouse in the United States have developed a similar system they have not been able to obtain a commercial licence. Ramakrishnan blames this on what he calls the NIMTOF syndrome (Not In My Term of OFfice). Politicians are too cautious of new technologies, he suggests.

The CSIRO now wants funds to develop the process for the commercial destruction of large quantities of organochlorine waste, such as those stored at Botany. More research is also needed on what to do with the hot gases emitted from the furnace. It estimates this will cost some $5 million and although it has received enquiries from the US, Europe and Scandinavia, Ramakrishnan wishes that more Australian firms would invest in it.

The caution with respect to new technologies which Ramakrishnan speaks of does not seem to be confined to politicians. The Waste Management Authority of NSW dismisses these developing technologies as not being viable alternatives to incineration. It says "It would not be appropriate for Australia to become a 'guinea pig' for unproven technology." This seems ironic considering with the Authority's decision to experiment with the incineration of large quantities of CFCs in a hazardous waste incinerator.

Ross Thomas, the authority's project manager for the planned high temperature incinerator, says it would take between 10 and 20 years to develop alternative technologies to treat intractable wastes on a large scale. It is not safe to store the wastes for that long, he argues, they must be destroyed as soon as possible. However, Greenpeace spokesperson, Robert Cartmel, dismisses this argument. "If stored chemical wastes are so dangerous, why are the governments not equally concerned about the risks posed by new chemicals being stored for use? There are far more of them and they are just as dangerous."

In the meantime the NSW government is pressing ahead with an Environmental Impact Statement that will examine seven sites for an incinerator. An independent panel, chaired by Professor Charles Kerr of the University of Sydney, has been appointed to oversee the preparation of this report. They will also examine alternatives to incineration. The final report is awaited anxiously by country residents who fear the health effects of a poorly run incinerator, environmentalists who want to see hazardous wastes minimised and recycled out of existence and researchers on the brink of new developments that could see Australian science and technology leading the world.