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Critics Rap Incinerator Proposals


IT was a sparklingly fresh day for a demonstration against toxic waste. Under a clear blue sky, teenagers held signs with dire warnings and children leaned on cars listening to politicians and environmentalists rail against industrial practices that they say fill the air with poisons. The crowd, gathered here last Thursday at a site run by Clean Harbors Inc., a national corporation that among other things manages hazardous waste, was protesting that firm's application to build a toxic-waste incinerator.

It wasn't just the incinerator plan that upset them. It was the whole site. Clean Harbors already has a hazard-waste transfer center and a solvent-recovery operation here, and it is applying to install a medical-waste incinerator. Also present or planned are a trash incinerator, a gas/oil storage facility, and a sludge-recycling plant. Residents of this area south of Boston say their backyard is becoming a giant dump.

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This local protest was teamed with a larger one held in 43 states by an environmental group, the National Toxics Campaign Fund (NTCF), to draw attention to the growing use of incinerators to dispose of toxic wastes.

``The danger is that we're committing the nation to more generation of toxic waste, and a technology that is inherently dangerous and ineffective,'' says Gary Cohen, a spokesman for the NTCF. A better way, he says, is to reduce toxic wastes at the source, rather than build toxic-waste incinerators. His group is urging states to choose reduction over incineration.

The incinerators are supposed to be a cleaner replacement for landfill storage sites, which Congress ordered phased out by 1992 because many leak and are contaminating water sources.

But the NTCF says incineration produces poisonous emissions, such as dioxin and benzene, which affect the ozone layer. The process creates a toxic ash that itself has to be put into landfills. Transporting hazardous wastes has involved many accidents, the group adds, including spills and explosions. And the amount of waste produced in air emissions is in the hundreds of thousands of pounds; in toxic ash, billions of pounds.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says those figures are ``highly exaggerated. Strict controls over incinerators require 99.99 percent destruction,'' spokeswoman Robin Woods says.

An NTCF survey of 21 states indicates that most state disposal plans will favor new hazardous-waste facilities and incinerators. The federal Superfund law requires all states have to file hazardous-waste plans by Oct. 17. The plans must describe state strategies to manage properly hazardous wastes generated by companies over the next 20 years. States have the choice to build more incinerators or to reduce waste.

``We're saying we should use the [plans] to promote toxic waste reduction,'' NTCF's Mr. Cohen says. ``But the Environmental Protection Agency is pushing incineration.'' The group threatens to sue the agency if it does not stop encouraging siting and discouraging waste reduction.

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The EPA denies doing this. ``The EPA first and foremost seeks to encourage waste reduction and pollution prevention at the source in order to extend current disposal capacity as much as possible,'' Ms. Woods says. The EPA encourages new sites as a last resort, she asserts.

Another NTCF strategy is to work with grass-roots groups across the US to get waste generators and facilities proponents to enter into ``good-neighbor agreements'' that commit the companies to study the potential for reducing their use of chemicals and production of toxic waste.

In Massachusetts, much progress has been made in this area. The state has the strongest toxic-use reduction law in the country. Passed last month, it aims to reduce by 50 percent the amount of hazardous waste the state generates, by 1997.

``The state's goal is 50 percent reduction,'' says Karen Clancy, media relations manager for Clean Harbors Inc. ``But that still leaves 50 percent. What are you going to do with it, if it can't be reclaimed, or recycled? You have to destroy it.''

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