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Getting Rid of Toxic Waste

Quebec faces a problem as Britain spurns 1,500 tons of PCB-tainted waste set for destruction. CANADA

CANADIAN garbage is being tuned away from British ports and Canadian politicians are embarrassed by it. Like the unwanted Manhattan garbage scow being towed from dump to dump, Canadian PCBs (polychlorinated biophenyls) are sailing the high seas looking for a port. So far no one will have them and one load of toxic waste is coming home.

Last week a container load of 13 tons of Canadian PCBs was turned back from the British port of Tilbury. The port of Liverpool said it wouldn't take them either. Greenpeace, the international environmental group, had alerted local authorities that the PCBs from Canada were on their way to an incineration plant in Wales.

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``We're happy about the decision of England to turn back the PCBs,'' says Alain Rajotte of Greenpeace in Montreal. ``We don't believe in shipping waste from country to country. We think the country that creates the waste should get rid of it.''

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, embarrassed by this and two other loads of unwanted PCBs, says Canada will take care of its own industrial waste. ``We'll deal with it,'' said Mr. Mulroney. ``It's a problem for Canada and we'll have to make sure these things don't happen.''

PCBs were classified a toxic material and banned in Canada in 1977. PCBs are an oily substance whose main industrial use was as a coolant in electrical transformers.

The PCBs are stored in oil drums or left in the transformers. Both are then burned at high temperatures. But there is a worry that not all the PCBs are destroyed and that an accidental lowering of temperature could release even more toxic material into the air.

Canada has been shipping most of its excess PCBs to an incineration plant in Wales. Canada's only facility for destroying PCBs is in Alberta, a western province. In most cases, it will only accept waste from inside the province.

The first load of PCBs to be turned back was from a Dominion Textile Plant in Sherbrooke, Quebec, about 100 miles southeast of Montreal. The PCBs were used in transformers. Dominion Textile said it will store the PCBs at the plant until another way can be found to get rid of them. ``No one wants these incinerators in their backyard,'' says Michel Dufour of Dominion Textile.

Provirotect, the company in charge of shipping the waste, said it is looking for other places to burn it, perhaps in France or West Germany. ``We have shipped these cargos to Wales before,'' says Michael Zidle, a director of the company. ``This time we had a dual problem of Greenpeace and labor unrest at the British ports.''

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Improper storage of PCBs caused an environmental disaster last August in the Quebec community of St. Basile le Grand. There was a fire in a warehouse that was illegally storing PCBs. The community had to be evacuated. A report criticized Quebec for carelessness in policing PCB storage.

Two ships carrying the first of 15 shipments of waste from that fire are also expected to be refused permission to unload their cargo at British ports. Quebec provincial officials have been critical of the refusal to deal with the waste. ``We have an agreement with Britain,'' said Premier Robert Bourassa last week after the first shipment had been turned away.

The Quebec government has paid C$7.9 million to destroy the waste from the fire. The company in charge of shipping the waste suggests it might take legal action to make sure the PCBs arrive at the incineration plant in Wales.

If shipped back to Canada, the PCBs from St. Basile le Grand will be hard to hide. They weigh 1,500 tons. They also carry a lot of political weight, as the PCB warehouse fire was one of Quebec's largest environmental events.

The Alberta facility had agreed to handle the PCB waste from St. Basile le Grand, but only if the PCBs were separated into solids and liquids. The containers going to Wales have not been separated.

The federal government had promised to build an incinerator for PCBs in Canada by the spring of this year.

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