In 10 years, the Memphis Light, Gas, and Water electric grid will be completely free of a toxic substance known to cause liver damage, cancer, and low birth weight.
During routine inspections in 2005 and 2006, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation noted violations in the way MLGW employees disposed of, stored, and marked polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at three local substations.
Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the utility would be fined $1.22 million for their PCB problems. In addition to paying the fine, however, MLGW volunteered to undertake a 10-year project to replace all its transformers and capacitors that contain PCBs.
"We're going above and beyond what EPA would make us do," said MLGW president Jerry Collins. "Some entities would fight EPA in such a matter, but we're going to exceed their expectations by spending money to remove PCBs from our electrical system."
PCBs were once widely used as a nonflammable coolant for transformers. But the substance was banned in the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act due to concerns about its effect on human health and the environment.
Though PCBs were banned in 1976, EPA spokesperson Dawn Harris-Young says it's not uncommon for large utility companies to still have some lingering PCBs in their systems.
"A utility company can continue to operate with PCBs in their system as long as they are handling them in the right manner," Harris-Young said.
When the colorless, oily liquid finds its way into lakes and rivers, it accumulates in fish and marine mammals. Humans are exposed to the PCBs when they eat affected fish, and the resulting problems range from acne and skin rashes to cancer in the liver and biliary tract.
And there is, as Collins said, "always the possibility that a transformer containing PCBs might leak."
In the first phase of the project, MLGW will replace 880 transformers and over 2,800 high-voltage PCB capacitors over the next three years. Once the $10 million, three-year program is complete, Collins says MLGW will continue to replace additional transformers over the next seven years.
"I think the EPA is very happy with MLGW. This is a model way of handling a situation like this," Collins said. "We're not EPA's adversaries. We're working hand-in-hand to make sure a potential hazard is mitigated."