EPA Shuts Down Rahway Incinerator Test

Jon Hurdle | August 27, 2020 | Energy & Environment
EPA chief ends study into how to dispose of PFAS chemicals. NJ’s DEP blames public ‘misperceptions.’ Environmental groups had objected to the test
Credit: Union County Utilities Authority
Union County Resource Recovery Facility in Rahway, where the test was supposed to be performed

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cancelled plans for the experimental burning of a chemical at a municipal waste incinerator in Rahway after New Jersey officials said they wanted the project moved out of state because of objections from environmental justice groups.

The EPA planned to burn the chemical, CF4, as part of an investigation into how to dispose of toxic PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to cancer and other illnesses, and exist in high concentrations in New Jersey because of its long industrial history.

The plan ignited strong protests from environmental groups who said the incineration would add air pollution to a heavily industrial area, many of whose residents are low-income people of color.

The Department of Environmental Protection was cooperating with the federal plan but on Monday, Commissioner Catherine McCabe asked the EPA to conduct the experiment out of state, her chief of staff, Shawn LaTourette, told reporters during a hastily arranged media call on Tuesday.

McCabe’s request to EPA was prompted by the protests. LaTourette said protesters, particularly in New Jersey’s environmental justice communities, had “misperceptions” about what the incineration would consist of, and misplaced fears that the experiment posed a risk to public health.

“Bad information can sow mistrust, and it can sow a misunderstanding of the facts that can lead folks to think that they are in danger of being harmed, and that’s the last thing we want,” he told reporters.

LaTourette said some people in the community confused the Rahway plan with one in upstate New York to incinerate firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment and can persist in waterways and soil for years after their use or manufacture has ended.

DEP official said people misunderstood

“There seemed to be a suggestion last week that this firefighting foam that was to be incinerated in New York was somehow going to be incinerated in New Jersey,” LaTourette said. “That was demonstrably untrue and yet people were circulating this information. The two narratives somehow became intertwined, and that’s unfortunate.” He said public misunderstanding persisted despite his efforts to set the record straight in the media.

LaTourette said that environmental advocates unfairly accused DEP of “aiding and abetting” the Trump administration in conducting research that could in future be used to justify the burning of PFAS chemicals in a municipal waste incinerator..

He said New Jersey is still interested in helping the EPA understand the science of disposing of PFAS chemicals, on which the state has set nation-leading regulations.

Late Tuesday, the DEP said the EPA has now promised not to conduct the CF4 experiment in New Jersey. DEP said New Jersey does not sanction the improper disposal of PFAS, including firefighting foam that contains the chemicals, and that there are no facilities permitted to incinerate PFAS in the state.

The study would have explored the ability of solid waste incinerators to break down a chemical bond similar to the PFAS bond using safe, nontoxic surrogate compounds, the DEP said.

In a statement, the DEP said that it held a conference call with community representatives last Friday and communicated their concerns to EPA.

But the state defended its decision to look into whether PFAS chemicals can be safely disposed of. “PFAS chemicals are already ubiquitous within the solid waste stream and the scientific and regulatory community must know whether these chemicals are effectively destroyed upon incineration,” the DEP statement said.

Canceled ‘because people stood up’

Critics of the Rahway plan included the New Jersey Sierra Club, whose director, Jeff Tittel, wrote to McCabe last week, urging her to end the DEP’s participation in the EPA project, which he said would worsen conditions for a community that is already suffering from particulates and air toxins from the incinerator.

Rather than testing whether to burn waste such as popcorn bags and some clothing that contains the chemicals, the EPA should be working to remove it from the waste stream, Tittel told McCabe.

On Tuesday, Tittel called the cancellation a “win” for clean air and attributed it to public opposition.

“The EPA cancelled this experiment because people stood up,” he said. The EPA “couldn’t explain rationally why they wanted to turn the people of Rahway into a lab experiment,” Tittel added.

James Regan, a spokesman for Covanta, which runs the Rahway facility, said the company agreed to cooperate with EPA because of the need to understand the science of PFAS disposal.

“There is a real need for robust scientific data to better understand the fate of PFAS in everyday products and waste, so we will look closely at any future opportunity to help study this important topic,” he said.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, announcing the cancellation early Tuesday, blamed it on Judith Enck, the former administrator for the agency’s Region 2 under President Barack Obama.

Wheeler of EPA slams former agency official

Enck, now a visiting professor at Bennington College in Vermont, said she had done “very little” to provoke the attack from Wheeler, but had participated in a conference call with some environmental justice groups last Friday, when she told them why she thought the Rahway plan was “a bad idea.”

Wheeler accused Enck of “unprofessionalism, personal ignorance, and dishonesty,” and said she had “single-handedly shut down the Rahway study.”

Enck did not respond to the personal attacks but accused EPA of failing to give the Rahway community notice of its experiment and failing to say whether the plan was a precursor to burning PFAS in municipal incinerators throughout the country.

“It is important for EPA to announce where they intend to try this next, how they plan to engage with local residents, and what they are doing to investigate non-incineration treatment technologies to deal with PFAS waste,” she said in a statement.

The chemicals, once used in consumer products including nonstick cookware, are linked to illnesses including some cancers, ulcerative colitis, and developmental problems in children. In response to growing health concerns, New Jersey has set strict regulatory limits on the presence of three of the most common PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

But the EPA has set no national standards, issuing only a health advisory level for two of the chemicals that is much looser than New Jersey’s regulations.

Still, the EPA began a “PFAS Action Plan” in early 2019 on how to manage nationwide contamination with the chemicals, and in February this year began a “regulatory determination” — the first step in a process that may eventually lead to enforceable standards — for two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS.