PCBs Still a Risk to Rerefiners

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will fine Oil Re-Refining Co. $450,000, unless it properly disposes of 150,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil by 2016.

EPAs mandate, announced in an April 3 press release, is the settlement of a three-year-old case between the EPA and ORRCO.

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Oregon-based ORRCO purchases recyclable waste material that can be rerefined for a variety of uses, including finished lubricants and base oils. ORRCOs president Bill Briggs told Lube Report that his company rarely has issues with the millions of gallons of used oil it collects, but that in early 2010, it analyzed a sample from a 300-gallon load it had recently purchased and detected PCBs at a concentration of 20,800 parts per million.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are carcinogenic chemicals that are hazardous to both human health and the environment, according to the EPA. Although PCBs were banned in 1979, remnants of the man-made toxic substance still appear in material manufactured prior the ban, such as old electric equipment – namely, transformers and capacitors-and also in various oils and hydraulic fluids.

Unfortunately, there are no tests that can be done in the field to detect PCBs, Briggs said. We received a waste material profile from our provider, whom wed done business with for a long time without problem, which explicitly stated that the material didnt contain PCBS, so we collected it.

ORRCO shut down all operations at the facilities in which it found contaminated oil, and notified the EPA. We reported it as soon as we found it. Although its not frequent, its also not a surprise to come across PCBs in this business – all the major players do from time to time, Briggs said, noting its usually a $10,000 or $20,000 cleanup.

The problem in this scenario, according to Briggs, was that some contaminated oil had already been transferred to other ORRCO facilities. Before ORRCO had detected the contamination and traced it back to one of its regular customers – Burly Seal Products of Utah – ORRCO had been collecting it for three weeks, Briggs said. In that time, the contaminated oil had been mixed with other sources of oil as ORRCO transferred it from its Salt Lake City facility to Klamath Falls and Force Road facilities in Oregon, and back to Portland. According to court documents, ORRCO acknowledged that the mixed oil had also been sold to five customers before it was aware of its PCB content.

Shortly after finding the first tainted batch, ORRCO also found PCBs in oil from another generator, Pacific Recycling, Inc. Prior to discovery, oil from that 1,000 gallon collection – in which PCBs were detected at a level of 288 parts per million – had been transported to ORRCOs Goshen facility and mixed with other sources as well.

By the time the EPA inspected all ORRCO facilities, it found PCBs in around 150,000 gallons of oil. Suzanne Skadowski, a spokesperson from EPA Region 10, says it would have been in ORRCOs best interest to have done tests before it dispersed the oil, in which case the trial could have been avoided. Instead, they experienced a domino effect: as the contaminated oil moved from facility to truck to storage tank and mixed with other oil, it spread PCBs to previously uncontaminated sources all along the way.

According to parameters established by the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1979, waste material recyclers are allowed to store and use oil that has PCBs at levels of under 2 parts per million. However, the federal law dictates that if an original source with more than 50 parts per million diluted any other sources, then the diluted oil must be destroyed as well, regardless of whether its PCBs content is quantifiable or not.

Dilution is no solution, Briggs said. So at this point were sitting on around 700,000 gallons in about 24 tanks that cant be used – which is over 450,000 gallons of diluted oil that has under the safe amount [of PCBs], but since the contaminated oil had touched tank, truck, and line, its all contaminated. Briggs says his company applied for a permit from the EPA which would allow it to decontaminate its equipment and salvage subsequent sources of oil, but wasnt granted one for several reasons beyond the companys control.

We cant resell the diluted oil, and its expensive to destroy. Briggs said he had to lay employees off and close plants, and that the ordeal almost put him out of business.

We did get a decent deal on the settlement, Briggs said. Now, were focused on getting rid of the oil and starting fresh. Briggs said he has been working with NORA, or the Association of Responsible Recyclers, a trade association that represents liquid recycling companies.

NORAs General Counsel Christopher Harris told Lube Report that NORA is advocating on behalf of recyclers such as ORRCO to have enforcement of the TSCA regulations relaxed. PCBs were supposed to have been flushed out by now, and its been rare to find them in the industry, until an epidemic of hits in the late 2000s, Harris said. Previously, recyclers relied on the representation of generators regarding PCB content, but since PCBs have been showing up in new places, weve recommended that companies put all collected waste material into a guard tank where it can be tested before being dispersed.

Briggs said ORRCO has followed NORAs recommendations, and since the original early 2010 findings has immediately locked down collected oil in what he refers to as a jail tank, some of which has been found to be contaminated. In the meantime, Briggs said his company is suing the two generators that supplied his company contaminated oil in early 2010. The EPA is also looking into inspecting the two generators, Skadowski said.

Based in Portland, ORRCO has collection and processing facilities in states throughout the Northwest, including Wash., Ore., Mont., Nev., and Utah. ORRCO uses a rerefining process developed by Pesco (Pragmatic Environmental Solutions Co.), of Roanoke, Va. Briggs said Pescos process, based on evaporation and clay processing, is efficient and yields an unusually high proportion of base oils.