Tacoma will pay a $40,000 penalty for 750 gallons of contaminated oil it tried to recycle, a fraction of the 1.6 million the city says it has kept out of Puget Sound with its oil-collection program in past decades.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday the city agreed to the settlement, after it unknowingly sent a batch of used oil contaminated with PCBs in May 2012 to be recycled by Emerald Services on the Tideflats.
The company caught the contamination, but not until after the batch had ruined other oil set to be recycled, which meant about 8,250 gallons had to be sent across the country to be incinerated.
PCBs are chemicals formerly used in products such as paints, heavy machinery and electrical transformers. The EPA banned them in 1978 after concerns about human health and how long the chemicals stay in the environment. PCBs last for decades, and have been shown to cause cancer in animals, according to the agency.
It’s not clear how PCBs got into Tacoma’s oil collection.
Residents can drop off used oil to be recycled at five sites around the city, in addition to Tacoma’s landfill. The program, which started in 1992, is designed to keep Tacomans from dumping the oil into the environment, such as when they change the oil in their vehicles.
This is the first time the collected oil has tested positive for PCBs in the 19 years Gary Kato, the city’s solid waste division manager, said he’s been involved with the program.
“It’s usually just not there,” Kato said.
The recent contamination is causing the city to change how it tests the used oil before sending it to be recycled, and possibly where it collects it. Officials are considering recommending to the City Council on Nov. 13 that the five city-run stations to dump oil outside the landfill be closed, because of the logistics and cost of testing for PCBs, Kato said.
The city was testing for chlorine, which sometimes coincides with PCBs, but not always. The field test costs about $20 to $30, compared to the lab test needed to detect PCBs, which is in the ballpark of $100.
The city will make the switch, Kato said, but will need additional tanks, so it can continue collecting oil while it locks up oil that awaits lab test results.
There’s no requirement to test for PCBs, regional EPA enforcement specialist Tristen Gardner said.
“But if you have PCBs, you’re required to manage it correctly,” he added.
The EPA has seen more of this contamination in recent years and is investigating why. It might be that equipment made with the chemicals back in the day is starting to break down, Gardner said.
Officials also are just starting to look into the possibility that the chemicals are showing up in the transmission fluid of old vehicles, he said.
However the PCBs ended up in the Tacoma oil, it looks likes the city will be asked to cover the cost of getting rid of the chemical.
Emerald Services spokeswoman Susan Thoman declined to say what the disposal or lost revenue of the unrecyclable oil cost the company, but said it’s “customary for us to ask anyone who ships us problematic material to reimburse us.”
All in all, she said, the company has been pleased with what it’s received from Tacoma’s program over the years.
“The City of Tacoma does a great job monitoring its oil,’ she said. “It is really rare that this would occur.”
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268