Baja Toxic Incinerator Put on Display

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to allay any fears about public health risks, the operators of a new, $15-million incinerator here conducted a tour of their seaside facility Tuesday and vowed that they can safely vaporize Mexico’s entire backlog of toxic PCBs and other chemical wastes.

Representatives of TEESA--a working partnership of five Mexican businessmen and Oakbrook, Ill.-based Chemical Waste Management--gave the tour to San Diego reporters to highlight the safeguards of the incinerator and underscore their belief that its operation will pose no significant public health threat.

The incinerator will be the only one in Mexico officially designated to burn polychlorinated biphenyls, man-made hydrocarbons that were used for years as fluids in transformers and capacitors. PCBs are suspected carcinogens and have become pervasive pollutants.

The Mexican government has assumed responsibility for disposal of PCBs, which are used primarily by state-owned utility companies and Pemex, the state-owned oil monopoly. The government has stockpiled about 12,000 55-gallon barrels of the PCBs around Mexico City while looking for a way to dispose of the substance, according to Chemical Waste Management officials.


Early May Completion Date

Last year, the government contracted with TEESA to vaporize the nation’s supply of PCBs in an incinerator to be built on land owned by the partnership along the coastal hills here, just 5 miles south of Tijuana.

The agreement calls for the Mexican businessmen to have the PCBs transported from Mexico City to Tijuana, and for Chemical Waste Management to conduct the incineration at a price of $1,000 a barrel, said Gene Davidson, the facility’s general manager. The plant can burn 2,500 barrels of waste a day. The company will also use the incinerator to burn other hazardous wastes supplied by the government and eventually the maquiladora twin-plant industry, he said.

Construction of the $15-million incinerator began in November and is scheduled for completion in time for a test burn in early May, said Davidson. Along the way, the partnership and Mexican authorities have worked closely with United States environmental officials to make sure the kiln will perform up to American standards.


Those consultations, said Davidson, have produced assurances that the incinerator will not pose a hazard to nearby residents--the closest homes are about 2 miles away--or to people living in southern San Diego County. In particular, there is little or no threat of the incinerator producing dangerous emissions that could waft over the border, he said.

“The general concurrence is, we don’t think it’s an issue,” said Davidson.

Officials from three American environmental agencies--the Environmental Protection Agency, the county’s Air Pollution Control District and county’s Department of Environmental Health Services--confirmed Tuesday that they have inspected the incinerator and talked with TEESA representatives. All three said they believe the kiln will be safe if the company keeps its word to conduct operations as prescribed by American regulations.

Concerns About Trucking

“Our analysis shows that, from the standpoint of air quality, there is no reason to believe that, if they built this according to standards, there will be an impact on the United States from that location,” said Hal Brown, a senior meteorologist for the air pollution district.

Stan Burger, an EPA official from Dallas who has visited the plant, added: “Technically, it’s got all the equipment necessary to incinerate any organic waste completely.”

Larry Aker, assistant deputy director of the county’s Department of Environmental Health Services, said that, although he is generally comfortable with the proposed incineration operation, he has concerns about trucking the PCBs to Tijuana.

“If the highway system and manner of driving is not what it is in the United States, then having PCBs running up and down the highways may prove to be a problem,” he said.


Davidson and Chemical Waste Management officials said Tuesday they wanted to build the incinerator so far away from the PCB supply because the partnership already owns the land and is equipping a sophisticated laboratory on the Tijuana site. If the incinerator proves to be successful, the partnership may build another somewhere else in Mexico.

One San Diego environmentalist Tuesday lashed out at the incinerator proposal, saying it poses a health hazard.

“I think for any agency to say that the burning of hazardous waste will create no impact is a blatant lie,” said Diane Takvorian, executive director of the Environmental Health Coalition, a nonprofit organization.

Takvorian, who also has toured the plants, said she has fears about the fumes that could be given off by other toxic substances mixed in with the PCBs. She also said that incinerators like TEESA’s are supposed to operate at virtually 100% efficiency in destroying hazardous wastes, but often don’t.

These were the kinds of fears that the partnership was trying to ease on Tuesday, and they offered reporters an extensive tour of their facilities. Workmen were busy digging a safety trench around the incinerator, which looked like a huge engine set against the scenic hills.

PCBs to Fuel Incinerator

Davidson explained that the incinerator will use the PCBs themselves for fuel to heat the two kiln chambers, the second of which will be brought to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The intense heat, he said, is necessary to make sure the compound is vaporized without forming dioxins, another toxic substance.

Hydrochloric gases produced during the incineration will be neutralized by a caustic soda. Although a minute amount of the hydrochloric gas may be released from the incinerator’s stack, most of the emissions will be harmless carbon dioxide and steam, said Davidson.


Davidson stressed that the incinerator has a backup generator and a backup diesel fuel source, as well as an emergency water supply of at least 72,000 gallons on hand to douse the fire if something goes awry.

The first test burn is tentatively scheduled for May 1, said Davidson, and officials from the EPA and other American regulatory agencies will be invited to observe.