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One company's answer to hazardous waste problem

Everyone wants proper disposal of hazardous wastes, but who wants a disposal site in his neighborhood -- or even his town? Not, apparently, the people of Hookset, N.H.

Stablex Corporation, which processes hazardous wastes into a nontoxic, cement or rocklike substance, planned to build a facility in the New Hampshire town. It acquired an abandoned sand and gravel pit in Hookset and anticipated routine approval by town boards.

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But aroused public opinion resulted in rejection Feb. 3 by the town planning board of a construction permit. The matter could wind up in court.

Whatever the outcome in Hookset, it appears the Stablex system will have its chance in the United States. The firm developed its process in England in 1970, and it operates three waste-treatment facilities in that country.

Construction on the first Stablex plant the US began last November in Groveland, Mich., and a permit has been obtained for a facility in Ascension Parish, La. The company is seeking licenses for two other sites -- one in Houston and the other in Quebec, Canada.

Besides the Hookset situation, local opposition has arisen in other communities where Stablex facilities are proposed. Despite extensive advertising by the company in local media, many citizens remain unaware of the Stablex process or unconvinced that it is safe.

In Groveland, after the Stablex plant was approved in accordance with a local ordinance, citizen pressure brought about a change in the law in an attempt to block the facility. The company challenged the action in court and won, but the city has appealed that decision. Meanwhile, construction continues.

In Louisiana, company officials say, no legal complications are anticipated. In Houston, public hearings on a future Stablex plant will begin next month.

The negative environmental impact of hazardous wastes (dangerous industrial byproducts) has been dramatized by discoveries of improper disposal in all sections of the country. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are 30,000 such sites nationwide.

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Some 57 million tons of waste, much of it potentially harmful, are generated by businesses and utilities in the US. Last November Congress passed legislation establishing a $1.6 billion "superfund" to pay for cleanup in cases where responsibility for improper disposal of hazardous waste canot be established.

The Stablex process involves running inorganic wastes through a slurry into a common vat where chemicals are added to render the substances nontoxic. Stablex calls this reaction the "crystal capture" phase. The resulting low- grade cement, which dries in three days, is poured on the site. Eventually the land is reclaimed for other uses by putting soil over the neutralized waste. The cement can also be used as a road base and in some construction.

A company spokeswoman concedes that others offer solidification technology. But she claims the Stablex process is the only one that renders the chemicals nontoxic.

Miles Morse, an specialist with the EPA, says that Stablex is the only corporation that so far has presented plans for a detoxification process.

If and when the plants are constructed, each will handle an average of at least 100,000 tons of toxic waste a year; the Michigan facility will have a capacity of 500,000 tons. Stablex claims the synthetic rock has no smell, no emissions, and will not leach into the soil.

The specific types of toxic waste handled by the plants will differ for each facility, but they would likely include byproducts from such industrial processes as petroleum refining, leather tanning and refinishing, metals recovery, and electroplating.

Some EPA officials remain wary of viewing fixation processes as the ultimate solution to hazardous waste disposal. In conjunction with the US Army corps of Engineers, the agency conducted extensive tests on fixation technology beginning in 1974, but failed to reach a definite conclusion as to its long-term safety.

Yet Mr. Morse cited a test that simulated the life of a Stablex landfill and the freeze-thaw cyles it would experience. The test indicated "little or no leaching of toxic constituents," he said. Morse added that he believes that if there were stringent controls on specific wastes, "the process would pretty much come up to the standards the company has advertised."

One EPA official feels fixation should be considered the last of three options for dealing with hazardous waste -- behind reducing the amount produced and recovering or recycling usable chemicals.

Although there is ample evidence from Stablex's English facilities that the fixation process works over the short term, there is simply no evidence that there will or will not be leaching of chemicals from the cement in 50 or 100 years time.

The EPA has temporarily "de-listed" the Stablex facility in Michigan. This means that for two years, under strict monitoring, the company will be allowed to include in the detoxification process 20 to 30 chemicals listed by the agency as hazardous. After two years the data will be reviewed, and a determination will be made as to whether or not the facility will be granted permanent de-listing.

Recent EPA issuance of strict hazardous waste regulations has brought Stablex a flurry of inquiries from potential customers.

Since Stablex assumes responsibility upon receipt for the waste it processes, generators of toxic waste are eager to deal with the company and rid themselves of the troublesome material.

There are certain wastes the Stablex process cannot accommodate, including nuclear and some organic substances, but the Stablex facilities planned for Texas and Louisiana will have equipment for incinerating organ ic materials such as used motor oil.

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