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Burning Issues

Velsicol passes EPA test, but questions remain.

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A new standard has been set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for chemical plant emissions, and Velsicol Chemical Corporation's year-old incinerator passed a recent trial burn with flying colors. But at a public meeting last week, environmentalists raised questions about the accuracy of the test and lodged complaints about the way communications have been handled with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) with regard to obtaining test results.

Although Velsicol's waste incinerator was installed in 1988, all the control equipment was replaced last year, causing the plant to fall under the EPA's new "maximum achievable control technology" (MACT) standard. The standard, which sets limits on how much pollution a plant is allowed to produce, was set by the EPA last year. MACT requires these trial burn tests once every five years, and this was Velsicol's first. The test was conducted by the Memphis-Shelby County Health Department.

"At the trial burn, we run a worst-case scenario," said Andy Felker, plant manager at Velsicol. "Sometimes that means spiking [the waste] with different metals to ensure that the incinerator device is cleaning up the air stream as it's designed to. We sent the strongest waste streams we've ever generated."

Velsicol produces flame-retardant compounds and chemicals used in cotton insecticides. Felker says the plant burns waste an average of 12 to 14 hours per day. The Health Department's test results showed that the plant burned 99.9 percent of its hexachlorobenzene and 99.9 percent of its toluene. Those results fell way below the requirements of the MACT standard.

However, during the public meeting, questions were raised by environmentalists from the Sierra Club about the validity of those results. Rita Harris, environmental coordinator for the Sierra Club, claimed to have found a binder containing test results that may show those numbers were adjusted after they originally exceeded calibrations on measuring instruments.

Officials from Velsicol and the Health Department were not able to answer her question, although Felker said he would research the issue and get back with her. Harris had not received a response by press time.

Felker, who announced at the meeting that he comes from an environmentalist background, claims he works hard to ensure that the environment and the community surrounding Velsicol are protected from harmful chemical emissions.

"In my philosophy of operating this plant, you've got three things you're looking at -- safety, the environment, and production quality. If something's unsafe, I want to shut everything down and get that resolved immediately," said Felker. "We've done that on many occasions here. If I see that a leak's about to develop, we shut the whole unit down before it gets off-site."

For years, people living in the surrounding North Memphis community have been complaining that Velsicol's emissions have resulted in various illnesses. It has become an environmental justice issue at Harris' office since the majority of residents in that area are minorities living in poverty.

"There are a number of people in the community who have breathing problems like asthma, and that's normal in places located near chemical plants. We also have people with cancer and people who have said their relative or neighbor has cancer or has died from cancer," said Harris. "We can't connect Velsicol directly with anyone's illness, but any time you've got a chemical plant near a residential area, you've got a hot spot."

Felker said he had not heard about such claims and could not make a comment. He said the plant operates in such a manner that there should be no off-site risk, but an upcoming risk-assessment test by TDEC would address such issues further.

Harris' biggest gripe at the meeting was a lack of response from state TDEC officials when her office requested copies of the test results. The information was made available at public libraries, but Harris said her office requested its own set of test results. After receiving no response from e-mails and phone calls, Harris sent a letter to TDEC on September 29th. She did not receive any response until the meeting, at which a state official apologized and presented binders containing the results to the Sierra Club.

Harris said "it was a little late" since the group had intended to review the materials for the meeting's question-and-answer period.

"When you go to these types of meetings and you're not a technical person, it's a little like going to the doctor. You're trusting that doctor to tell you the truth because you don't have training in that field," said Harris. "The only thing you can do is raise questions that we think may help us to better understand what they're doing. We started requesting information in August. I feel like this is a way of discouraging people from complaining and asking questions."

E-mail: bphillips@memphisflyer.com

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