The Toxic Trail
Chemical Production: The Production of Chemicals
Used to Treat Wood Poles
Petroleum-based chemicalsPenta, creosote, and naphthalene are all organic chemicals derived from oil and coal. The construction of oil wells and mining of coal also produces serious environmental damage. Drilled oil must be transported to a facility where it is refined. Shipment by oil tanker has resulted in some of the largest environmental disasters in recent history. Even more oil travels through mostly unregulated pipelines, leaking about 13 million gallons per year. Creosote is distilled from coal tars, which are by-products of the carbonization of coal to produce coke or natural gas.
Metal-based chemicalsThe most commonly used metal-based wood preservative is copper chromated arsenate (CCA), made up of copper, chromium and arsenic compounds. Copper mining and smelting are among the most environmentally destructive activities in several western states. Copper metal is the source of copper in most commercial copper compounds. Arsenic is present in ores containing other metals, including copper. Chromium compounds are derived from sodium chromate and dichromate, which are produced by roasting chromite ore with soda ash. Chromite ore has not been mined in the U.S. since 1961. In 1988, the main sources of chromite ore imports were South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Turkey.
Toxic releases from manufacturing sites
Fires and explosions at pesticide storage sites are common. On April 6, 1991, a Royster Company warehouse in St. Louis, MO burned down. There were over 50,000 pounds of more than 60 different pesticides in the warehouse. The fire's toxic fumes caused at least $1.4 million of property damage. Cleanup costs were estimated at $500,000.
Fish tissue sampled from streams affected by runoff from Vulcan show residues of pentachloroanisole (a carcinogenic metabolite of penta) and hexachlorobenzene (a carcinogenic contaminant of penta). Levels of hexachlorobenzene are as high as 180 parts per billion, which is a concentration at which any fish consumption would lead to exceeding the one in a million risk level set as acceptable by EPA.
Worker exposure Workers on oil rigs and in coal mines are exposed to toxic chemicals in mines and from crude oil used in the production of wood preservatives. Workers involved in the production of coal tars that go into creosote are exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other toxic by-products. Workers employed in the manufacturing of wood preservatives are exposed to multiple toxic chemicals.
Chemicals SpillsToxic chemicals must be transported from their manufacturing facility to the site where they are used. On average, there are five hazardous materials accidents each day in the U.S., three during transportation.
On July 14, 1991, a rail tank car derailed in northern California, spilling 19,500 gallons of the fumigant metam sodium, commonly used to retreat utility poles, into the Sacramento River. The chemical sterilized 45 miles of river, and made its way to Lake Shasta, which provides drinking water for millions of people in California. It was not until 3 weeks after the spill that EPA discovered (from files in the agency's possession for four years) that metam sodium is highly fetotoxic (toxic to the fetus) and teratogenic (causes birth defects). The same stretch of rail suffered 41 accidents over a period of 15 years.