By Jeff Montgomery
The federal government plans to ship
to Mexico up to 20 railcars of chemicals from an abandoned factory
near Delaware City, hoping to trim taxpayer-funded cleanup costs
that could top $100 million.
Four tank cars of chlorinated benzenes
already have left the former Metachem Products factory, bound
for a plant in El Carmen, Mexico, near Mexico City. Details of
the shipment were unavailable late Friday, although officials
confirmed that the abandoned chemicals - potentially a hazardous
waste in Delaware - were declared a product for purposes of the
Two officials from the Environmental
Protection Agency and a Delaware Department of Natural Resources
and Environmental Control employee made a mid-December trip to
visit the Mexican factory prior to the start of the shipments.
A former Metachem employee now working as a consultant under an
EPA contract also made the trip.
"We think this is a good thing,
a reuse of chemicals," said John B. Blevins, DNREC's director
of air and waste management. "We don't have to dispose of
it as a hazardous material, and there won't be a need to create
more new chlorobenzene somewhere else. It's not the majority of
the material left at the plant, but it's a good dent."
Neither Blevins nor David Sternberg,
a spokesman for the EPA's regional office in Philadelphia, were
able to provide details about the shipping arrangements or how
the chemicals would be used in Mexico.
Alan Muller, who directs the environmental
group Green Delaware, questioned the transfers and said both agencies
should release verified information about levels of dioxin and
polychlorinated biphenyl contaminants in the shipped chemicals.
"If it's not a waste, why does it have to go to Mexico?"
Muller said, adding that he was concerned about handling and safe
disposal of the materials after they leave the United States.
The EPA and DNREC recently spent millions
trying to separate dioxin and PCBs - highly toxic byproducts -
from the stockpile at Metachem. The process was halted in early
November amid doubts about final disposal requirements for thousands
of 3-foot cubes filled with hazardous compounds. Blevins said
Friday it now appears unlikely the EPA will resume the work, although
Sternberg said a final decision has not been made.
Metachem declared bankruptcy and abandoned
the factory to the government in May 2002, walking away from some
$65 million in debts, 43 million pounds of hazardous chemicals
and a 46-acre property that had been listed among the nation's
most polluted sites since 1986.
The factory produced chlorinated benzenes,
a long-lived group of chemicals used to make herbicides and pesticides
that can cause kidney, liver and neurological problems. Much of
the plant's stockpile was laced with PCBs and dioxins - both among
the most toxic compounds known.
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