Even with the most strict environmental laws in the country, California’s size and diverse industry base make it far and away the nation’s biggest polluter.
As chief of the Alternative Technology Section for the state’s Department of Health Services for the last four years, Dr. David J. Leu has played a key role in developing ways to deal with the more than 1.4 million tons of sludge, toxic chemicals and polluting solvents that pour out of California factories each year.
Earlier this month, Dr. Leu left his position with the state to join Mittelhauser Corp., a Laguna Hills hazardous waste management consulting firm and a leader in oil spill treatment. Leu, an engineer by training, now has the task of helping Mittelhauser diversify into the latest areas of hazardous waste management.
There are probably few people better qualified for the job. At the Department of Health Services, Leu launched a new waste reduction program and developed the nation’s largest waste management technology testing program, which is now viewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the best in the country.
Before working for California, Leu was in charge of the Bureau of Hazardous Waste for New Jersey, a state with no shortage of its own environmental problems.
Helping American industry dispose of its hazardous waste is a big and growing industry: corporations are expected to eventually spend $40 billion a year on the problem.
In an interview with Times reporter Eric Schine, held shortly before Leu left the Department of Health Services, he explains some of the latest toxic waste management techniques and how Orange County’s high-tech corporations as well as its environment can benefit. Q. As a hazardous waste specialist, what exactly is it that you do?
A We focus on reviewing and demonstrating new technologies in the field, or old technologies applied in a new way, to treat or eliminate hazardous waste.
Q. And what would be an example of the technologies you test?
A. Well, for example, one of the 85 technologies that are being demonstrated by us in the field now is a project in Stockton to clean up about 10,000 cubic yards of oil-contaminated soil. What we will be doing is seeing how well this unit can handle the job, how clean it can get the soil, and how safe it is.
Q. What is a demonstration program?
A. Before we have different types of technologies sprouting all over the state, we try to first demonstrate that technology, in a very public way, so that industry, regulatory officials, elected public officials and the public can come in and observe that technology in operation. So, when that technology does go forth in an effort to slay the hazardous-waste dragon around the state of California, it will be a known commodity, and people will feel safe and comfortable and secure with that technology operating in their back yard.
Q. After spending your career in government service, why are you joining Mittelhauser?
A I’ll be moving over to Mittelhauser to get these technologies implemented.
Q. You are in a unique position, having spent your career as a public-sector regulator, about to join the corporate world. In your view, what are the responsibilities of corporations in addressing the hazardous waste problem?
A. First and foremost, they have a responsibility to manufacture their products in a way that protects public health and the environment. But what many people don’t fully realize is that there are numerous ways of doing that through the use of these types of new technologies, while at the same time cutting their costs of disposal of hazardous waste. So it’s a win-win type of situation in which companies can increase their profits by decreasing the volumes of hazardous waste that they have to shift off site and put into land disposal.
Q. As a regulator, your job was to see that corporations abide by the law. Now, going to work for the private sector, some might suspect that in joining the other side you are going to help corporations get around these laws. Do you see it that way?
A. No, not at all. I view this move to Mittelhauser as a natural and logical extension of what I’ve been doing with the state, because I’ve been able to help companies develop these technologies and demonstrate them and prove to the state that these technologies are safe and are a very true benefit to public health and the environment.
One problem, though, is that because most of these new companies are fairly small, they don’t know how to take that technology and move it into the industrial marketplace. So, what I will be doing with Mittelhauser is working with these small technology companies to move their environmentally sound technologies into the corporate world.
The bottom line is that the corporations that use these technologies come out ahead in terms of both environmental benefits and cost savings. The public will come out ahead, because no longer will these companies be generating such large volumes of waste. The government comes out ahead because instead of having to deal with clean-up problems and leaking landfill problems, by the use of these technologies, those types of problems will decrease.
Q. What sorts of industries are producing the most serious kinds of waste in California?
A It’s a wide array of companies. The oil industry, of course, generates a lot of hazardous waste. So do chemical manufacturing companies, and other types of manufacturing companies that must use chemicals and solvents in the manufacturing process.
Q. Where is Orange County on the industrial pollution scale. Is this a fairly clean area?
A I’ve never focused on Orange County as compared to other counties. But I can say that the seven Southern California counties, including Orange County, generate 50% of the hazardous waste in the state. We’re talking about over 700,000 tons a year.
Q. What are some of the hazardous waste producing industries in Orange County, a region known for high-technology?
A. Aerospace is one. When you manufacture aircraft or jet engines or anything with metal in it, you have to clean those metal parts. Traditionally, the aerospace industry used solvents to get off the oil, grease, dirt and metal particles. This has generated a real solvent problem for the environment.
But the aircraft manufacturing industry, and the aerospace industry specifically, have made giant strides in one particular area at least. And that’s reducing the volume of solvent wastes that they used to produce.
Q. What about computer and micro chip manufacturing? Do these industries have a particular waste disposal problem?
A. They do. We recently had a big demonstration day with Hewlett-Packard Co. in Palo Alto to announce a remarkable new waste reduction process that allows computer manufacturers to reuse the solvency used to clean their chips and parts. Through this process, it’s possible to reduce the volume of solvent waste by over 33,000 gallons a year. That’s a savings of $100,000 a year.
Another problem is arsenic used (in the manufacturing of microchips). Hewlett-Packard has come up with a process that allows them to collect the different arsenic compounds and remanufacture them as arsenic ingots. Overall, the process saves over $300,000 a year in waste disposal costs.
This is a prime example where the department and industry has worked together. We helped fund it, we helped supply some technical expertise. They have taken that and used their own technical expertise to come up with this wonderful process that is transferable directly to other chip manufacturing companies.
Q. And pharmaceutical companies? What sort of waste do they produce?
A The waste streams that they generate are small volume, but highly diverse. They use a lot of solvents in their manufacturing of drugs, because they need to have such high purity of material. And they use solvents to clean their equipment as well as to manufacture the equipment used to make the drugs. They also generate a lot of laboratory wastes in testing.
Q. With all the laws and regulations already in place, how is it that corporations are still contaminating soil in the first place?
A. A variety of ways. Poor housekeeping, such as a company inadvertently spilling barrels of metal-bearing substances or acids with metals in them. Or some illegal discharger disposal practices. Then there’s just plain ignorance. From the 1940s right through the 1970s, many companies simply didn’t know better. It was common for companies to take their toxic wastes and simply put it back in the corner of the plant, in a little pond, and just leave it there. And through time, the metals have leached out of the pond, into the soils, and now they have a much much bigger problem. Those are typical scenarios. Sometimes you just have a spill.
Q. And what specific technologies have you developed to help get rid of all this industrial waste?
A. One process we’ve used on auto shredder waste in San Diego changes the chemical structure of toxic metals into nontoxic metals by adding silicates to it. The result is a nontoxic kind of silicate.
Q. What are silicates?
A. Sand or ordinary clay that you find in your back yard. Clays have inherent in them large concentrations of heavy metals and we don’t get harmed by these clays, because the metal is in a metal silicate form.
What this process does is the same thing as what nature does, it takes the metal and puts it into a metal silicate form to generate a nontoxic substance. We’ve implemented this process into industrial manufacturing. We have developed and refined the process with the University of California at Berkeley.
Another way of (detoxifying metals) that we’re very proud of is a process in which we take metal waste sludge and mix it with clays. Then we push the mixture through a spaghetti-strainerlike device. This device chops the ribbons of clay into little quarter-inch-size pellets. We then take these clay pellets and fire them in a ceramic kiln.
The pellets can be used as either lightweight aggregates in making very high-strength concrete, or they can be made into nontoxic decorative bricks. These bricks could also be used as road base material in manufacturing roads.
Q. Is this process in use now?
A. We have one facility built down in San Diego County as a demonstration facility. We are now moving that type of facility into Rohr Industries (an aerospace firm) in San Diego.
The beauty of this concept is that you take what has traditionally been viewed a hazardous waste, and a real environmental detriment, and you take that material and (turn it into) a valuable commodity which is nontoxic and safe.
Q. But will this process make economic sense? The energy industry has been been making the very argument for a long time that they could take waste and turn it into valuable energy. But, in fact, for that industry, turning waste into energy has proven very expensive, right?
A. Yes. But the difference here is a company such as Rohr will have to pay hundreds of dollars per ton to dispose of their waste. So that’s a big cost. Now, they’ll be taking that waste and, instead of paying all that money, they’re spending maybe $40 or $50 to process that material and turn it into lightweight aggregate. Then they’ll sell that aggregate for maybe $12 to $15 a ton. The profit they’ll be making on that aggregate will offset the cost of processing the waste. Their net savings is about $150 to $170 a ton.
Q. If these technologies are as good as you say they are, why aren’t they more widely used?
A. Well, in my role here, I have observed a very key problem. And that is the companies that have these technologies tend to be small companies. And they are outstanding in regards to doing their technology and how to operate it safely. But they don’t have the skills or abilities to assess the marketplace, and to then take their technology and move it into the marketplace effectively.
And what attracts me to Mittelhauser is that they are a very well known, highly reputable environmental engineering and geotechnical firm. They know the marketplace very well, how to take these technologies and engineer them into the industrial process. We in the state can’t do that. We’re a regulatory agency. We are not here to market technologies and move them into the industrial plant. That is not a role for a regulatory agency to play.
Q. What is the link between Mittelhauser and these small companies? Is Mittelhauser looking to acquire some of these firms, or will they be working with Mittelhauser in joint ventures?
A. It’s too early to say that, although, without a doubt we are interested in business relationships with these types of companies.
Q. Until now, Mittelhauser has primarily been involved in oil cleanup and treatment technologies. What other areas of waste treatment will it be moving into?
A. Well, we’ll be looking at the chemical industry, the auto shredder industry, and different types of industries that use solvents and have a solvent waste problem, such as metal shops and the aerospace industry.
Q. Are any of the small waste technology companies based in Orange County?
A Yes. One comes right to the top of my mind: Separation and Recovery Systems, located in Irvine. SRS is an outstanding company with three different types of oil treatment processes that have been demonstrated by the EPA and have been used on major cleanup sites, as well as in major industries.
John Wayne co-founded the company and had a business relationship with it, and it was one of the few times that John Wayne really came out strongly on an environmental issue and, you know, did something about it.
Q. Are there many other companies like Mittelhauser out there?
A There are a number of engineering companies out there. In my opinion none of them are as unique as Mittelhauser, which has a very strong environmental engineering background, developed over the last 10 years. In the oil industry especially, they’re viewed as one of the top, if not the top, environmental engineering company.
Q. Last summer, it seems, the environment was front-page news almost every day: ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect, the drought and forest fires, medical waste washing up on East Coast beaches. Is there any doubt that the global environment is seriously deteriorating? And are you optimistic or pessimistic about prospects for the future?
A. Some of that news was sensationalized, but many of the articles I read were right on target. Those issues are very significant. As far as the future, the real trend in the United States, where we’ve recognized the problems and spend so many millions of dollars on them, is very positive. What is bleak right now, though, and what I think will be bleak in the future, are the problems of underdeveloped Third World nations as they industrialize. They have not focused on environmental problems because they are looking at much more basic issues: food, shelter and health for their people.