use wood poles treated with wood preservatives for their distribution
lines. Since a wood pole is potentially a food source or living quarters
for organisms ranging from bacteria and fungi to insects and birds,
it must be treated with a broad-spectrum poison in order to protect
it. Furthermore, utilities expect poles to last 35 to 50 years. The
poison must be persistent.
WOOD PRESERVATIVES AND POLES
produced by the wood preserving industry meet these requirements.
They are toxic to virtually everything, including people. They persist
a long time in the environment. The same qualities that make them
effective for protecting exposed wood from pests also make them
dangerous to all other life. The toxicity and persistence of wood
preservative chemicals have produced hundreds of Superfund toxic
The wood preservative
chemicals have other qualities in common. They are all toxic soups
--complex combinations of chemicals, whose precise identity is generally
unknown. Although other pesticides contain secret ingredients whose
identity is known only to the manufacturers and EPA, wood preservatives
go beyond secrecy. Pentachlorophenol, for example, is manufactured
by a process that necessarily results in substantial contamination
with dioxins, hexachlorobenzene, furan and other very toxic chemicals.
Creosote is merely a fraction of coal tar that contains hundred
of different chemicals, in different proportions according to the
source. Copper naphthenate contains naphthenic acids which are derived
in a similar way from petroleum. The arsenicals contain mixtures
of salts of metals. Copper chromated arsenic, for example, contains
salts of copper, chromium, arsenic, and other contaminants, including
lead. It also turns out that the toxic effects of each of these
soups are synergistic --that is, the combined effects of the soup
is greater than the sum of the effects of the individual ingredients.
There are alternatives
to preservative treated wood poles. Although an alternative treatment
of a wooden pole is doomed to be broadly toxic and persistent, it
is not necessary for utility poles to be made of wood. Poles made
of concrete and of steel are used in some places. Some are competitive
in price with wood, even without taking into account their longer
lifespan. Although there are environmental problems connected with
the manufacture of steel and concrete poles, the intrinsic problems
are not as great as those associated with wood poles.
In the United States,
utilities come in four varieties: investor owned utilities, municipal
utilities, rural electrification associations, and public power districts.
While there are more municipal utilities than any other type, the
bulk of the profits go to investor owned utilities. Different types
of utilities have different motivations for choosing pole types.
provides huge incentives for polluting practices in the utility and
wood preserving industries. This has been mostly the result of agencies
abandoning the public interest in favor of protecting the interests
of the regulated industries. The regulations that supposedly restrict
the profiteering of investor owned utilities encourage utilities to
accumulate capital --which may be in the form of nuclear power plants
and may be in the form of poles-- and discourage utilities from trimming
costs by realizing long-term savings.
administration of the pesticide and hazardous waste laws has served
to protect the wood preserving industry from any real restrictions
on their activities. The companies that manufacture and use wood
preservatives have managed to avoid data requirements under the
Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and disposal
restrictions under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
by loopholes, delays, and exemptions created by EPA.
This report recommends
that the current regulatory incentives be reversed:
- Public utility
commissions should find more direct ways of protecting the environment.
- EPA should
examine the hazards of wood preservatives and the alternatives
to using any form of wood in applications where treated wood has
been deemed necessary.
- Wood preservative
manufacturers should be required to disclose all the ingredients
(active, inert, contaminants, and degradation products)
of all of their products. They should test the entire formulation,
and every time the formulation changes, they should test the new
- Wood preservatives
and treated wood should no longer be exempted from regulation
as hazardous waste.
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