Poles - A Report About Their Toxic Trail and Safer Alternatives
The lifespan of
treated poles depends on factors such as the type of wood, climate,
and type of treatment. The average expected useful life is 30-50 years,
but the turnover in urban areas is more rapid because of changes in
pole location due to changing utility service or street repair and
In excess of three
million poles are removed from service each year. Largely due to intense
lobbying by the wood preserving industry, there are very few restrictions
on the disposal of chemically- treated wood poles. Treated wood is
not considered a pesticide and therefore not subject to the Federal
Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Reused wood is
not a waste and therefore not subject to the Resource Conservation
and Recovery Act (RCRA.) Treated wood that is no longer usable is
waste, but has not been listed as hazardous waste. Therefore, several
different disposal methods are available nationwide.
Treated wood is
eligible for disposal in municipal landfills and a great deal is sent
Treated wood poles
are burned for their energy value in co-generation facilities permitted
for burning treated wood, in hazardous waste incinerators, and in
the fireplaces and wood stoves of scavengers. Burning of penta-treated
wood releases dioxins into the air. Arsenic and chromium VI are released
in the burning of arsenicals.
in hazardous waste facilities
So far, disposal
as hazardous waste is an option that has been avoided. While this
represents an out-of-pocket savings for the utility industry in the
short-term, it represents a real hazard to communities with associated
long-term cleanup costs.The Electrical Power Research Institute estimates
that "by avoiding the hazardous waste designation, the utility industry
will save $15 billion between 1989 and 1993." For example, despite
classifying the wood preserving chemicals as hazardous waste in levels
often found in used poles, the state of California has exempted Pacific
Gas & Electric (PG&E) from disposing poles in hazardous waste
landfills. The long-term impacts of this decision could be vast.
Many poles are
reused by farmers or others who receive them from utility companies.
At least one company recycles poles for reuse by shaving them down,
recovering wood preservative from the shavings, retreating them as
smaller poles, and selling the processed shavings for a filler for
Processes for removing
and/or reclaiming wood preservatives from unusable poles are being
researched, but not used commercially, except in the pole recycling
operation cited above.
of disposal and reuse
Every method of
disposing of treated wood poles in general use poses substantial risks.
The reuse of poles by people who are not familiar with the risks associated
with exposure to the toxic chemicals is very likely to lead to problems.
Often poles are used for landscaping, for building - dwellings, animal
shelters, and even children's play equipment - and for fence posts.
Children can be exposed directly or through contaminated soil. Poisons
can be picked up by vegetables, by farm animals or by pets.
are known to migrate away from poles in service in concentrations
that are high enough to be toxic to aquatic organisms. In landfills,
many poles may be disposed of together, so the concentration may
be even higher.
Burning is particularly
hazardous, since extremely toxic compounds may be carried great
distances, to be breathed directly or concentrated in other organisms
after falling to the ground.
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