October 10, 2008

Throwing the Switch on PCBs


Banks of capacitors free of polychlorinated biphenyls at Bonneville Power Administration's substation at the Ross Complex in Hazel Dell.

Miniature capacitor models line the tables as Bonneville Power Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency celebrated the complete removal of PCB-laden capacitors from the Northwest power grid.

A couple of generations ago, polychlorinated biphenyl was the wonder substance of the electrical industry.

Devised in the 19th century, the manmade chemical was a fantastic insulator, stubbornly nonflammable and retained its chemical properties for decades on end. Beginning in the 1920s, utility companies

with hundreds of millions of pounds of the stuff.

All of which led to the curious scene in a cavernous equipment repair hangar Wednesday on the Bonneville Power Administrations Ross Complex in Hazel Dell.

Our capacitors are PCBfree, read a sign hanging on a wall. Congratulations employees.

Over the past 17 years, the BPA spent $102 million switching out more than 100,000 capacitors across a high-voltage transmission system spanning four states. BPA officials decided it made sense to minimize the risk of the mineral-like oil leaking out of the capacitors and endangering public health and the environment.

They switched out the last of the capacitors this summer.

Unfortunately, the adverse effects of this wonder chemical werent known for many years, Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Elin Miller told BPA employees Wednesday. Were now left with a toxic legacy of persistent bioaccumulating compounds in our global environment, our wildlife and even in our own bodies.

Because the compound doesnt break down, it lingers and accumulates as one fish eats another. Research shows longterm exposure to PCBs can cause cancer and other health problems. Federal health researchers have raised concern about the pollutant slowing behavioral and neurological development in babies born to women eating PCB-contaminated fish.

The United States banned the manufacture of PCBs in the late 1970s, though there is no law requiring it to be removed from functioning equipment.

So we dont have that risk

Miller joined BPA Administrator Steve Wright to celebrate the fact that Bonneville voluntarily pulled capacitors from 69 substations, which link together 70 percent of the transmission grid serving Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Although BPA eventually would have swapped in PCB-free capacitors as part of routine maintenance, officials said they accelerated the process by at least a decade.

Theres always a chance for an accident, Miller said. They proactively took this on, so we dont have that risk.

The colorless PCB compounds comprised roughly 10 percent of the 10 to 100 gallons of mineral-like oil in each capacitor, said Jim Meyer, Bonnevilles manager of pollution prevention and abatement. Even though few capacitors were actually known to be leaking, Meyer said federal law required exceedingly careful handling, inspection and storage of PCB-laden material.

The new capacitors contain low-level benzene rather than PCBs.

Wednesdays celebration underscored a rising sense of urgency among federal environmental regulators focused on PCBs in the Columbia River. Miller said the EPA will soon target four toxic substances mercury, DDT, chemical flame retardants and PCBs as part of a plan to reduce toxic pollution in the Columbia River.

BPAs action removes a potential source of new pollution.

We dont have a perfect handle on all the sources of PCBs getting in the river, said Scott Downey, the EPAs Northwest regional director of the pesticides and toxics. Were trying to start with the lowhanging fruit.

Originally published by ERIK ROBINSON.

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