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Utility Company Sued Over Pollution from Toxic Wood Poles

(Beyond Pesticides, September 21, 2009) In a federal lawsuit filed in San Francisco earlier this month, the environmental watchdog group Ecological Rights Foundation (ERF) claims that dioxin is being discharged from Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (PG&E) utility poles into the San Francisco Bay, violating both the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Dioxin is a contaminant in the wood preservative pesticide pentachlorophenol (penta), the chemical used to treat more than one million PG&E utility poles in Northern California. Dioxin is a known human carcinogen. It also causes birth defects at extremely low levels. The ERF suit asks the court to stop PG&E from discharging dioxin from its utility poles, a move that could eventually lead to wide scale replacement of the ubiquitous penta-treated wood poles.

“These are the common, I guess you could say ‘classic,’ brown wood poles you see holding up wires on practically every street,” says ERF attorney Bill Verick. Pentachlorophenol (penta) is a chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbon, closely related to other chlorophenols, hexachlorobenzene, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and furans, all of which are found in commercial grade penta, along with secret “inert” ingredients.

It was 1978 when EPA began its review of wood preservatives, including penta, because of serious concerns about the public health and environmental threat that these chemicals represent. At that time, the agency put the chemicals into a special review process, then called Rebuttable Presumption Against Registration (RPAR). Only chemicals that trigger serious health and environmental concerns are placed into this faster track review. However, instead of moving expeditiously to begin removing uses of the heavy-duty wood lpreservaitves, including penta, from the market, the agency delayed. A review timeline set by EPA at four years in 1978 was extended to over eight years ending in 1986. Over that period, EPA reversed itself and softened its approach under tremendous pressure and legal challenges from the chemical and wood preserving industry. The original proposals for chemical restriction became progressively weaker over the years. When EPA completed its review and negotiations with the wood preserving and chemical industry in 1986, it did not specifically regulate wood poles, but did regulate the use of wood preservatives. Moreover, as a part of this review, EPA did not evaluate the cradle to grave considerations. Over the history of its regulatory review, EPA has stated its concern about the ubiquity of pentachlorophenol, its persistence in the environment, its fetotoxic and teratogenic properties, its presence in human tissues, and its oncogenic risks from the presence of dioxins in the technical material.

ERF states that dioxin drips off the poles when it rains and is washed into San Francisco Bay. The group says it measured high levels of dioxin in rainwater that dripped off PG&E’s poles, and that this dioxin could be traced all the way to Alhambra Creek in Contra Costa County. lhambra Creek drains into the Carquinez Straight, part of San Francisco Bay.

EPA studies show that dioxin stays in the environment for decades and that it bio-concentrates as it moves up the food chain. “That means that it concentrates in anything whose food comes from the Bay, fish, birds, sea lions or people,” says Mr. Verick. “The higher on the food chain you eat, the more dioxin you eat,” he adds.

According to a California State Water Board study, what leaks out of the poles contains dioxin at levels 150,000 times what the EPA set as an acceptable level for dioxin in residential soil.

“During the summer this dioxin-laden soil gets blown into the air as dust; people get it on their shoes and track it home, where it comes off on the carpets their kids play on,” says Mr. Verick. Parents should be particularly careful not to allow their children to touch or play with utility poles, Mr. Verick added.

ERF’s complaint alleges that, “Each pole leaves a plume of highly toxic carcinogens and teratogens in the soil on property that belongs to many homeowners, as well as many businesses and governmental entities, in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and San Francisco Counties, thus bringing thousands of citizens of these counties into close, daily, contact with
PG&E’s toxic waste.”

Alternatives to penta-treated poles include poles made from cement, fiberglass, or recycled metals, and laying utility lines under ground. Currently, the long term costs of purchasing, installing and maintaining fiberglass and concrete poles makes them competitive to treated wood utility poles.

Beyond Pesticides has focused on penta and the other two heavy-duty wood preservatives, inorganic arsenicals (such as chromated copper arsenate, or CCA) and creosote, since the early 1980s. The heavy-duty wood preservatives rank with the most deadly chemicals on the market. EPA has classified all of the chemicals, as well as their contaminants, as known or probable carcinogens. In April 2008, EPA released for public comment its revised risk assessments for the three heavy-duty toxic chemical wood preservatives. Read Beyond Pesticides comments.

Beyond Pesticides has published two reports addressing the risks of exposure to these chemicals. Our first report, Poison Poles, published in 1997 examines the toxic trail left by the manufacture, use, storage and disposal of the heavy-duty wood preservatives from cradle to grave. Pole Pollution, published in 1999, focuses on EPA’s draft preliminary science chapter on penta and provides the results of our survey of over 3,000 utilities across the United States and Canada. Both EPA’s science chapter and our survey provide shocking numbers. For example, EPA has calculated that children face a 220 times increase in the risk of cancer from exposure to soil contaminated with penta leaching out of the utility poles. Those utility poles are ubiquitous across our country. Beyond Pesticides also found that over 68 percent of utilities are in the habit of given away discarded utility poles that continue to leach toxic chemicals into the environment to the public.

See also background on Beyond Pesticides’ 2002 lawsuit against EPA, seeking to ban arsenic and dioxin-laden wood preservatives and filed in collaboration with a national labor union, environmental groups and a victim family.The case cites the hazards to utility workers exposed to treated poles, children playing near treated structures, and the environment, and cites the availability of alternatives.

For information about pesticide treated wood, see Beyond Pesticides Wood Preservatives program page.


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