Poison Poles – A Report About Their Toxic Trail and Safer Alternatives


Alternatives To Wood Poles

Recycled Steel
Other Alternatives

The justification for poisoning people and contaminating the environment must be evaluated against the availability of alternative materials and approaches that may be safer. In the case of the hazardous materials used to treat utility poles, alternative materials do exist. But, what are the hazards of these alternative materials and do they offer a better approach?

The differences in adverse impacts of materials is often difficult to compare. In some cases, one material may represent a threat to air quality while another represents a threat to water quality. In conducting life cycle analyses, researchers have consis tently focused on energy consumption associated with the production of various materials. However, the analyses typically fall short of evaluating the total toxic trail associated with the materials and practices that go into the production of the end pro duct --in this case, a utility pole.

No comparative analysis of products would be complete without consideration of the cost differential among them. Sometimes the analysis is skewed by its failure to consider the differential in the life span of a product. It is also biased by a failure to consider external pollution costs relating to chemical cleanup and health care associated with a wood preservative-induced illness.

In the case of wood, the utility industry expects 40 to 50 years of service (although it has been found that a bad batch of wood can yield less than 35 years of service). The steel, concrete and fiberglass alternatives yield a lifespan of 80 to 100 years. There are differences in maintenance costs associated with different materials. Wood may require retreatment, as some utilities do on a set cycle, while steel, concrete and fiberglass do not. In addition, disposal costs for chemicals used in wood treatme nt are high and growing, while steel is recycled.

Below is a discussion of the major alternative materials to chemically treated wood utility poles. It is important to consider these issues in the context of making a choice that is better for the environment and public health.

Recycled Steel

Steel has been cited as the most common alternative utility pole material in a Swedish report. The same is true in the United States, although steel and all the alternatives represent a small but growing alternative when compared with the use of treated wood utility poles.

The steel industry identifies steel as "the world's, as well as North America's, most recycled material, and in the United States alone, over 70 million tons of steel were recycled in 1995, resulting in an overall recycling rate of 68.5 percent." The industry says that two out of every three pounds of new steel are produced from old steel. Two processes are used. The basic oxygen furnace (BOF) process or blast furnace, which uses 28 percent scrap steel, and the electric arc furnace (EAF) process, which uses 100 percent scrap metal. The steel for utility poles are made with the electric arc furnace.3 According to the industry, when one ton of steel is recycled the following is conserved: 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal and 120 pounds of limestone.

The Swedish report indicates that air pollution associated with the processing phase of steel is the predominant type of pollution in the processing life cycle phase.  The report identifies a drastic reduction in air pollution from 1970 to 1988. Emissions to the air dropped in the following ways: dust, containing a number of metals, such as lead, copper and cadmium, went from 150,000 ton/year to 5,000; sulphur dioxide from 32,000 to 8,000 ton/year; nitrogen oxide from 4,400 to 3,700 a year and carbon dioxide from 8.0x10-6 to 4.4 x 10-6. While steel production has been cleaned up considerably over the past decade, environmental concerns focus on air and water pollution. The electric arc furnace, a cleaner process than the oxygen furnace, still produces dust contaminated with metals that are classified and disposed as hazardous waste. The production process also produces a sludge that can be landfilled and discharge water that can be sent to a municipal water treatment facility. Nucor, which uses EAF technology to produce new steel from recycled scrap metal for at least two steel pole manufacturers, released less than 100 pounds of lead in 1995 in producing approximately 1.5 million tons of steel. While little research has been done o n U.S. steel plants, there have been European studies that find airborne dioxin emissions associated with steel product in iron sintering plants, which are adjuncts to blast furnace operations. The contaminants are tied to the use of chlorinated lubricant s in the operations and could be eliminated with changes in practices.

The Swedish report credits steel poles with a life of approximately 80 years and indicates that the reuse rate "almost reaches 100 percent, resulting in a reduced energy utilization in the processing phase from 10,000 kWh/ton to 1,700 kWh/ton.8 The steel utility poles are either galvanized or coated with a sealant.

International Utility Structures, Inc. (IUSI) in Baceville, AR and Valmont Industries in Valley, NE have gotten into the steel utility pole business in the last several years. For a 40 foot, class 3 pole, they both have competitive pricing with IUSI pricing at $2659 and Valmont at $31510 (exclusive of freight). Valmont’s 40 foot, class 4 pole, which has a thinner diameter than the class 3, is approximately $260.11 IUSI produces a 40 foot, class 5 pole and charges $215.12 The material is lighter in weight than wood and the installation is similar.


Reinforced concrete is also identified as an alternative material to treated wood poles. Centrifugal casting is used to produce concrete poles with natural gravel or crushed stone with steel reinforcement. The environmental issues related to cement, the & #147;glue” that holds concrete together, raises serious environmental issues that must be added to the concerns about steel raised above. The material’s longevity ranges from 80 to 100 years.

Cement is produced in kilns that often burn hazardous waste. By 1994, 37 facilities out of 111 plants in the U.S. were permitted to use hazardous waste as a fuel to replace some or all of the large amounts of fuel required.

Cement is made by heating limestone, clay, and other materials to very high temperatures to form "clinker," which is cooled and ground with gypsum to make cement. This is accomplished by circulating the combustion gas around raw materials in a kiln. Many of the constituents of the vapor become part of the dinker or cement kiln dust.

About 60 percent of the five million tons of hazardous wastes incinerated annually is burned in boilers and industrial furnaces, almost all of the cement kilns or lightweight aggregate kilns. About 90 percent of all commercially incinerated liquid hazardous waste in the U.S., as well as a growing percentage of solid hazardous waste, is burned in cement kilns.

Some of the wastes burned in cement kilns are destroyed, but some are indestructible (heavy metals) and some are transformed into more toxic chemicals like chlorinated benzenes and dioxins. Everything which is not destroyed is released into the environment in some way. Some is released through fugitive emissions from the stacks- in gaseous particulate form. Some is adsorbed to cement kiln dust, which is typically piled on the ground before being taken to conventional landfills. Some is left in the ash, which also goes to landfills. And some becomes part of the cement- to be breathed daily by those living near "ready-mix" plants, and to be slowly released into the environment from concrete.

The disposal of hazardous waste into the environment through the various products of cement kilns results directly from incentives established by EPA. By delaying regulations, writing loopholes into regulations, and failing to apply their regulations, the agency has made cement kiln incineration an attractive, cheap alternative to disposing of hazardous waste in controlled facilities or reducing the production of hazardous wastes.

Therefore, while concrete poles are an alternative that may be preferable to wood in many cases, the current practice of producing cement through the burning of hazardous waste raises serious environmental pollution problems. Furthermore, concrete construction material is normally not used as a raw material for another product, although techniques exist for reuse.

StressCrete, a company based in Burlington, Ontario, Canada (with a plant in Tuscaloosa, AL) is a major producer of cement utility poles. It charges $375 for a 40 foot, class 3 pole and $350 for a 40 foot, class 4 pole (exclusive of freight). Because of i ts weight its installation costs tend to be higher than other alternatives. However, its durability is proven, having a track record of surviving hurricanes in the southeastern U.S.

Other alternatives

There are a number of other materials that are available for poles as well as the option of burying utility lines underground. The other pole material that most commonly surfaces is made from fiberglass reinforced composite (FRC). The manufacturing process is described by the major manufacturer of the product, Shakespeare, in Newberry, South Carolina, as follows:
These new fiberglass reinforced composite utility poles are manufactured using the filament winding process...Filament winding is accomplished on a machine which winds glass fibers onto a mandrel in a prescribed pattern to form the desired finished shape...For filament winding, fiberglass is purchased in a yarn-like form called roving. This roving is routed through a bath of liquid, catalyzed, pigmented, polyester resin before it reaches the mandrel. After the fiberglass and resin are in place, a surface of resin impregnated non-woven polyester fabric is applied. Heat is then applied to initiate cross linking (hardening) of the resin. After hardening, the tube is removed from the mandrel. . .After the tube is removed from the mandrel, it is t rimmed to length and any required holes are drilled...the final step is the application of a pigmented polyurethane topcoat.
Burying utility lines is often considered as an option for aesthetic reasons or in areas with utility or telephone companies are trying to avoid severe weather conditions. Although cost is a major consideration, the burying of lines is currently accompanied by the use of chemical treatments to protect lines from decay and pest problems. In fact the only remaining use of the insecticide chlordane is underground power transformers. This chemical was banned for agricultural uses in the 1970' s along with DDT and other organochlorine pesticides and had its remaining uses forbidden, with this exception, in the later 1980's. The use of this and other chemicals buried along rights of ways, over water tables and in sensitive areas, represents a serious threat to environmental protection.

Shakespeare prices its 40 foot, class 4 poles at $900.

Electromagnetic Field

The jury may still be out on the dangers associated with electromagnetic fields (EMFs), but there is sufficient evidence that the EMFs generated by utility lines are hazardous enough to cause utilities to consider options that increase the distance between the lines and human habitation. Among those options are burying lines and increasing the height of poles. Both options --which compare differently in different situations-- favor moving away from treated wood wood poles. Steel poles are more easily upgraded to taller poles by inserting a new section.

Cost Comparisons

It is difficult to compare costs of treated wood poles and the principal competition, steel, because of a number of factors that vary, including the type of wood utilized, maintenance practices, and length of service. Although Southern Yellow Pine is the most common wood utilized, Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar are used in the west. Utilities use different average size poles, most ranging between 40 foot poles with differing thickness that are generally either class 3 or class 4. In addition, pole prices vary according to a number of factors including volume purchases, contract agreements and volatility of the market.

Nonetheless, the purpose of this section is to generate a cost comparison between chemically treated wood poles to provide a context for evaluating the competitiveness of the alternatives.

Tillamook People's Utility District, Tillamook, OR 97141  

This utility service areas covers 60 miles of Pacific coastline and 24,000 poles. The utility uses coastal Douglas Fir, with an average pole size of 40 foot, class 4. It pays $271 for its penta-treated wood poles and approximately $70 more for steel poles . The utility district is purchasing steel poles currently for aesthetic reasons and to use in high traffic areas where it is expected that they will have less maintenance requirements. The utility indicates that there is some maintenance savings associated with the steel poles because they can discontinue the wood pole retreatment program which cost the utility $30 to $35 a pole. The utility retreats poles on a ten-year rotational cycle, treating the poles with additional chemicals (chloropicrin) as a preventive measure to stop decay before it starts. The utility believes that steel provides a long-term savings because its lifespan, estimated at 80 years, is double that of wood. They base this estimate on their experience with galvanized steel substations, transmission towers and fences. They also believe that they will recoup some of the cost of the steel pole through salvage at the end of the life of the pole.

Public Utility District of Douglas County, East Wenatchee, WA 98802  

This utility services north central Washington state. The utility uses on average a 40 foot, class 3, Western Red Cedar pole that is treated with penta only on the portion of the pole that is submerged underground. The cedar is naturally resistant to insects and decay. An inspection program is conducted on a 10-year cycle with treatment on an as needed basis. The utility has begun using steel poles. It pays $360 for wood poles and $383 for steel.

Eastern Utility Association, West Bridgewater, MA 02379

The utility covers a 599 square mile area in Massachusetts. The utility uses on average a 40 foot, class 4, Southern Yellow Pine pole, full length treated with pentachlorophenol. It pays on average $213 a pole and does not purchase any other alternative materials.

Pennsylvania Power & Light, Allentown, PA 18101  

This public utility has a service area that includes 23 counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, 10,000 square miles and 54,000 miles in their distribution system. The company uses full length creosote-treated Southern Yellow Pine poles. It pays $249 for it s standard 45 foot, class 3 pole. The utility discontinued its retreatment program as part of a budgetary move. However, previously the utility conducted a pole retreatment program every five years, treating poles from three feet above groundline to the base.

City of Alliance, Alliance, NE 69301  

This municipal utility covers 140 square miles in west central Nebraska. The area takes in 250 miles of primary distribution line. The utility is currently using full length penta-treated Douglas Fir for which it is paying $312 for its average 40 foot class 3 pole. It also uses full length penta treated Western Red Cedar, depending on the price. The company does not have a retreatment program.


From a cost perspective, alternatives to treated wood poles have become more competitive in recent years. Steel and concrete appear to be more cost competitive at this time than fiberglass. Longer transportation distances for wood pole alternatives add an additional front end cost to the alternative materials. However, savings in maintenance, longer in service lifespan and salvage value (of steel in particular) levels the cost playing field over the long-term.

Cost issues aside, there are numerous compelling reasons for shifting away from the hazardous chemicals used in treating utility poles and moving to alternative pole materials. While there are a range of considerations that should be brought into play, as indicated in this chapter, there is every reason to begin moving away from the use of pentachlorophenol, creosote, copper chromated arsenate and other wood preservatives.

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