Poles - A Report About Their Toxic Trail and Safer Alternatives
Economics of Regulated Investor-Owned Utilities
utilities, (IOUs) believe it or not, have an incentive to maximize
certain certain costs. Public utilities are, in general, private companies
that are given a monopoly market. In order to ensure that public utilities
do not use the monopoly to profit greatly at the public's expense,
their profits are limited to a certain percentage of their utility
rate base, which consists of their capital holdings. Other things
being equal, if the value of their capital holdings --including power
plant, substations, and poles-- goes up, then their profits go up.
This is one reason utilites have invested in expensive nuclear power
in 1996, two utility companies each have the same allowable 10 percent
profit margin and the same rate base. Company A's 100,000 poles
are all new steel poles, estimated to last 80 years. Company B's
100,000 poles are all new treated wood poles, estimated to last
40 years. The poles cost the same when they were new.
In 2036, Company
A's poles are still going. Company B's poles need to be replaced.
They are replaced with new poles, which now cost an additional $40
each. By replacing the poles (again with treated wood poles), Company
B, assuming a 10 percent profit rate, has just made a $400,000 profit.
The fact that there are costs associated with buying, installing,
and disposing of poles is irrelevant to the power company, which
is allowed to pass on those costs to the consumer.
There is another
twist to this. Utilities are granted a depreciation allowance --allowable
surcharge to help them set aside money to replace capital holdings.
This depreciation means that the differential between new and old
poles is even greater.
There has been
something of a move to introduce competition to utilities, but it
is unlikely to change the critical aspects here.
Eye, former Chief Counsel, Kansas Department of Health and Environment;
attorney representing citizens in utility cases, November
chemical restrictions and failure to consider alternative materials
The history of
U.S. regulatory action on wood preservatives is best characterized
by a series of missteps and backpedaling. The risk-benefit standard
in the Federal Insecticid,e Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)
empowers the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to allow high
levels of risk based on assumptions about a chemical's benefit. At
the same time, the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
(RCRA) regulates wood preserving plants and treated wood waste with
a series of exemptions and standards that allow for high levels of
Office of Pesticide Programs has launched a Pesticide Environmental
Stewardship program. In participation with federal agencies, "groups
or companies agree that environmental stewardship is an integral part
of pest management practices." Although a number of utility companies
have agreed to a set of principles with non-specific risk reduction
goals and undefined Integrated Pest Management (IPM) management of
power line rights-of way, no attention has been focused on the utilities
as a major user of wood preservative-treated utility poles.
Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) Because EPA does
not operate with a "bright line" standard of unacceptable hazards
and attributes benefits to chemicals without fully evaluating the
availability of nonchemical strategies, the agency is constantly
putting the public at unnecessary risk. Furthermore, because EPA
does not consider the full range of adverse effects from a chemical's
cradle to grave, from manufacturing to use to disposal, the full
extent of the chemical's hazards are not analyzed.
It was 1978
when EPA began its review of wood preservatives 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 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 these chemicals 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.
Because EPA identified extraordinarily high risk to human health
from the most widely used wood preservatives, the agency began a
regulatory review process which evaluated the acceptability of their
continued use. The agency on October 18, 1978 initiated what at
the time was called a Rebuttable Presumption Against Registration,
now called Special Review. This is a process during which EPA evaluates
the risks and the benefits of the pesticides in question. EPA initiated
action based on the following health triggers:
EPA set a timetable in which it announced an expected final regulatory
decision by the middle of 1980. However, the process did not conclude
until six years after that date and major issues are still not resolved.
When EPA began its review process in 1978, it began an evaluation
of wood preservative benefits that assumed the need for these chemicals
because of their widespread use. As a result, the review process lacked
credibility because it did not evaluate the viability of alternatives,
including alternative materials to treated wood. The National Coalition
Against the Misuse of Pesticides' (NCAMP) review of the Special Review
process in Unnecessary Risks resulted in an indictment of the benefits
review process. The process assumes the benefits of poisons that are
routinely and widely used, like wood preservatives, despite significant
risk to human life and the environment and regardless of safer alternatives.
Furthermore, EPA does not have a process to revisit the issue of new,
safer alternative technologies, materials or approaches that emerge,
thus challenging assumptions of the need for a chemical. The National
Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences notes that:
- creosote - for oncogenicity (cancer) and mutagenicity (genetic
- pentachlorophenol (or its contaminants) - for oncogenicity,
teratogenicity (birth defects) and fetotoxicity.
- inorganic arsenicals (including copper chromated arsenate)
- for oncogenicity, mutagenicity, reproductive effects and fetotoxicity.
Formal benefits assessments are conducted only during
this [Special] review and do not generally contain detailed economic
analyses of alternative nonchemical or IPM [Integrated Pest Management]
strategies. The effect of this practice is to assume that the economic
value of nonchemical or integrated control strategies is near zero.
Consequently, the benefits assessments tend to overstate the economic
benefits of the individual pesticide under review as well as the
impact of pesticide cancellation.
EPA issued a
preliminary notice of determination concluding the RPAR for the
wood preservatives in 1981. In this document, EPA proposed to adopt
what it called "risk-reduction measures which are cost effective
and which will reduce risk by a significant amount." Here again,
the agency attributed irreplaceable benefits to wood preservatives,
almost across-the-board, that rationalized continued use. In its
position document, EPA wrote, "Due to the non-substitutability of
the wood preservative compounds and the lack of acceptable non-wood
or other chemical alternatives for many use situations, the economic
impact which would result from an across-the-board cancellation
would be immense." The agency does not reference alternative
materials, just alternative chemicals. According to EPA,
data base for the alternative wood preservatives is so deficient
as to disallow a definitive assessment of the risks associated with
the use of the alternative wood preservatives. However, there is
suggestive evidence to indicate that the acute toxicity of TBTO
and Cu-8 may be unacceptable for unrestricted use. Similarly, the
data for CZC, ACC, Cu-8, 2,4,5-TCP, 2,4,6-TCP and 2,3,4,6-Tetra
indicate potential long term adverse effects. The toxicological
potential of copper napthenate and zinc naphthenate cannot be assessed
on the basis of a few acute toxicology studies in which LD50 [lethal
effects that kills half the test population] values could not be
determined. In conclusion, from a safety point of view, the alternatives
do not appear to be preferable to the RPAR wood preservatives.
The agency's proposed
risk-reduction measures would have changed the terms and conditions
of the chemicals' registration in the following ways:
- cancel spray
penta products available for retail sale in concentrations of
5% or less;.
some products for restricted use (only available to certified
applicators or those operating under their supervision);
protective clothing and equipment;
eating, drinking, and smoking while applying wood preservatives;
proper care and disposal of work clothing and equipment;
a closed mixing and a closed emptying system for all prilled (granular)
formulations of penta, powder and prilled (granular) formulations
of sodium penta and the powder formulations of the inorganic arsenicals;
indoor applications of the wood preservatives;
the use of pesticide-treated wood indoors, except for a few low
applications of the wood preservative pesticides in a manner which
may result in direct exposure to domestic animals or livestock,
or in the contamination of food, feed, or drinking an irrigation
control technologies to reduce arsenic surfaces residues on the
final action in 1984, now six years into its process of review,
deliberation and negotiation. Despite all this effort, the action
was immediately challenged by wood preservation trade associations
and user groups, who requested an administrative hearing. As a result,
EPA action was enjoined for another year. The notice proposed the
sale and use of wood preservatives to certified applicators;
- starts a
mandatory consumer awareness program, Consumer Information Sheets
will accompany pressure-treated wood ;
gloves, protective clothing, and respirators (when entering cylinders
or opening cylinder doors), dust masks for high levels of inorganic
- limits immediately
the level of dioxin contamination in penta to 15 ppm [parts per
million], and to one ppm within 18 months; and,
- label changes,
to include protective clothing statements, can't be applied inside
or to wood intended to be inside, no eating, drinking, or smoking
During the period
July, 1984 to September, 1985, EPA negotiated with the trade and
user groups, resulting in a weakening the original final action.
Changes in the settlement include:
agreement finalized EPA action on wood preservatives, "except that
registrants of penta wood preservative products who . . . reserved
the right to request a hearing on the Agency's requirements for maximum
certified limits for HxCCD [dioxin] and other contaminants or on the
requirements for verification of such limitations set forth in the
consumer awareness program was shifted to Volunteer consumer awareness
- under this
voluntary program, an annual survey will be conducted by American
Wood Preservers Institute (AWPI) and Society of American Wood
Preservers (SAWP), not EPA, as originally proposed; and,
- EPA has
the right to inspect the survey records for two years.
The EPA proposal
to limit dioxin contamination in penta was challenged by chemical
manufacturers following the agency's issuance of the July, 1984
Notice of Intent to Cancel, which included an allowable 1 ppm (parts
per million) of dioxin contamination. The two companies involved
in this proceeding included Vulcan Materials Company and Idacon,
Inc. Under pressure, EPA agreed to raise the dioxin levels by 4
times to 4 ppm in some cases. EPA reached a settlement on November
7, 1986 which accomplished the following:
EPA has not acted
on the use of wood preservatives since 1986. According to EPA staff,
although the wood preservatives are undergoing reregistration along
with hundreds of other pesticides, the issue has been "backburnered"
as EPA focuses on food use pesticides.
the levels of hexachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (HxCDD) from the original
notice (lower the level to 15 ppm immediately, 1 ppm in 18 months)
- in one
year, no batch will contain more than 6 ppm, but the average
will not exceed 3 ppm; and,
- in 2 years,
no batch will exceed 4 ppm, average will not exceed 2 ppm
must be analyzed and reported to EPA monthly.
its January 2, 1987 Final Determination and Notice of Intent to
Cancel and Deny Application for Registrations of Pesticide Products
Containing Pentachlorophenol (including but not limited to its salts
and esters) for nonwood uses, EPA said,
The Agency is
concerned 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.
in the World is Pentachlorophenol Banned?
uses prohibited by final regulatory action due to health or environmental
Action Network, "1995 Demise of the Dirty Dozen," and United Nations,
"Consolidated List of Products Whose Consumption and/or Sale Have
Been Banned, Withdrawn, Severely Restricted or Not Approved By Governments,"
Fifth Issue, 1994.
Consider the Alternatives to Treated Wood Poles
EPA allows the
continued use of these hazardous materials despite the availability
of alternatives to wood poles. The range of economically viable alternatives
include recycled steel, concrete, and fiberglass poles, and burying
In 1995, Canada
took up the issue of wood preservative use with the establishment
of a Strategic Options Process (SOP) for the Wood Preservation Sector.
Environment Canada recognized that the availability of alternatives
may have changed since this issue was evaluated in the 1980s and
therefore launched a study to "rank the feasible alternatives to
products that are made from creosote-, CCA-, ACA-, or pentachlorophenol-treated
wood." According to a memorandum describing the review, "Alternative
products may be wood treated with other pesticides, products made
from materials other than wood, or alternative practices." Alternatives
to be considered include steel, concrete, aluminum, fiberglass,
plastics and composites.
Conservation and Resource Recovery Act (RCRA)
Under RCRA, arsenical
treated wood waste has been exempted from the hazardous waste designation
and creosote or pentachlorophenol levels in waste wood fall below
the agency's defined hazard threshold, known as a Toxicity Characteristic.
As a result, treated wood waste circumvents regulations that would
require disposal in hazardous waste landfills. This means that unless
a state government acts, the treated wood may end up in an unprotected
The state of
California has set levels for residues of wood preservatives in
wood that are more stringent than the federal government. According
to the state, tests have shown that wood preserved with pentachlorophenol,
arsenic, chromium and copper fail the states Total Threshold Limit
Concentration (TTLC), making the wood hazardous waste. However,
a 1995 state law, AB 1965, specially exempts treated wood waste
removed from electric, gas, or telephone service. While the treated
wood waste is defined as hazardous, the law exempts it from being
managed as hazardous waste if certain disposal management practices
are used. Even prior to this law, the state had issued variances
for the major utility in the state, PG&E, allowing the reuse,
handling, and disposal of treated wood poles as nonhazardous waste,
and permitting disposal in non-Class I hazardous waste landfills.
Nevertheless, the state requires the disposal for wood wastes treated
with creosote, penta and arsenicals in municipal landfills that:
PG&E says it
saves $500,000 a year by sidestepping the hazardous waste management
designation. The costs associated with managing hazardous waste include:
filing a notice of hazardous waste generation or an application to
store, treat and dispose of hazardous waste if material is held for
more than 90 days; a manifest or recordkeeping system; the use of
only registered haulers; and, possible standards testing.
a composite-lined portion;
- are approved
by the Regional Water Quality Control Board;
- do not allow
scavenging of the waste; and,
burning of such waste.
have adopted similar laws to California. Both Washington and Oregon,
while defining the treated wood waste as hazardous, have excluded
it from hazardous waste management requirements with stipulations
that the disposal occurs in landfills with leachate collection systems.
generated by wood treatment plants, EPA is currently working on
Land Disposal Restrictions which will regulate wastes, such as sludge
and other wastes from wood preserving plants, as hazardous waste.
Regulations are due out by April, 1997. A similar effort by regulators
in California was stopped by legislators in that state.
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