The Arizona Department of Weights and Measures is breaking the law and endangering the environment by refusing to test recycled oil that is burned as fuel by heavy industry, according to an official at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Service stations and other maintenance shops must pay disposal services to cart off the oil they drain out of crankcases, and much of it ends up as fuel used in the manufacture of asphalt and cement. State law sets levels of heavy metals, PCBs and other by-products of engine wear that end up in used oil and that can be burned without releasing those substances into the atmosphere.

Furthermore, solvents such as degreasing agents accidentally or intentionally find their way into the used oil and need to be disposed of at substantially greater expense to the mechanic. If those chemicals are unwittingly burned, they can release dioxins or phosgene gas--a nerve gas--into the air we breathe.

The responsibility for testing used oil, both at the service stations and at the industries that burn it, belongs to ADWM, which is supposed to report all infractions to the Department of Environmental Quality. ADWM has not made any reports of finding hazardous wastes in used oil since May 1993.

Sharon Rhoades, the chief enforcement officer for ADWM, admits that her department has only done 16 such tests in the last 17 months--less than what used to be done in a day by a single inspector. John Hays, the department's director, claims he just doesn't have the manpower to make more tests. But disgruntled ADWM employees say they were told to avoid taking samples they thought might be contaminated.

Which leaves mechanics and oil recyclers to do as they please. And since it costs them substantially more to properly dispose of oil tainted with hazardous waste, they have an incentive to pass the oil off as untainted.

"It's an industry for laundering hazardous waste," says Robert Verville, who is in charge of used-oil compliance for ADEQ. Verville says "it's easy" for mechanics with hazardous wastes to blend them into used oil. "No one's going to find out about it. You send it to a burner who can't efficiently burn it," he says.

The 1990 used-oil regulations arose in part out of the Persian Gulf threat to pinch the oil supply. "The legislature finds that millions of gallons of used oil are generated each year in this state," began the text of Senate Bill 1215, "and that this oil is a valuable petroleum resource which can be burned for energy recovery thereby conserving virgin petroleum products."

And from an environmental standpoint, there was concern that oil recyclers in states with stricter hazardous-waste-disposal laws would ship their contaminated oils here to be burned as cheap fuel instead of destroyed at high cost to whoever generated the mess.

Because ADWM already had a lab to test gasoline octane, the legislature ordered that it test used oil, as well. The department's inspectors took samples from mechanical shops that generated the oil, heavy industries that burned it, and could even stop the tankers transporting it in between.

The legislature also demanded that the results of the tests be monitored by the Department of Environmental Quality.

"When we first started the program, we were experiencing anywhere from a 25 to 30 percent failure rate," says John Taylor, a Weights and Measures inspector from Tucson who lost his job in a reduction-in-force in June. Used oil with too-high levels of heavy metals were mislabeled, and inspectors turned up more than 200 instances of hazardous waste contamination during the first two years of the program.

Even though the law demands that used oil be recycled, according to a 1993 ADWM report, two million to four million gallons of used oil somehow disappear each year; that much more virgin oil is sold than what appears in the possession of recyclers, which suggests that it is dumped illegally.

Forty-two Arizona companies bought more than three million gallons of used oil last year to be burned as fuel. Each of those companies pays to DEQ a "burner penalty" of 6 cents per gallon of "on-specification" oil, that is, clean used oil. Used oil contaminated by heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and cadmium, or by PCBs, is called "off-specification" and can only be burned in furnaces that prevent those substances from escaping into the atmosphere; its users pay a higher use penalty of 20 cents per gallon burned.

From those fees, ADEQ collects approximately $190,000 per year, then pays half of that to ADWM to be funneled back into its used-oil testing program.

Though the penalties are still being paid and the funds split between the two agencies, no one is checking to see that any of the oil is what it is said to be. ADEQ doesn't have the budget; ADWM isn't keeping its part of the deal. The oil keeps burning.

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Michael Kiefer