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Metachem waste heading to Mexico

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 export.

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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