News

Is It Cheap Fuel Or Hazardous Waste?

In California, it's a hazardous waste, but in Arizona, it's a bargain.
It's used oil from industrial plants, car engines and a host of other sources, and it's polluted with an alchemist's nightmare of heavy metals and PCBs. California doesn't want it.

But trainload-size gaps in Arizona law have resulted in this spent and adulterated fuel being shipped here and marketed as a cheap alternative to natural gas and propane. County health officials aren't testing this "alternative" fuel. Nor are they monitoring it for specific chemicals being spewed from the smokestacks of industrial plants throughout the Valley which are burning used oil.

And state lawmakers, trying to end the four-month-long session, think they have a crisis on their hands but aren't sure exactly what--if anything--to do about it. These days they rail against Arizona becoming a garbage dump for its environmentally savvy neighbor to the west. But earlier in the session they deep-sixed a measure that would have helped solve the problem.

Further confusing the matter is that this crisis actually isn't new: Industries have been burning used oil for years, pollutants and all. It only became an issue when executives from Southwest Gas Corporation suddenly realized that customers were switching to the cheaper used oil. That meant less money in the pockets of company shareholders.

Part of what makes used oil so cheap is a three-year-old California law which classifies most of it as hazardous waste. The statute specifically limits the amount of lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and PCBs--a known carcinogen used with oil in electrical transformers--that can be burned in used oil in California. And the rest of it? The law gives handlers two choices: Refine and recycle it, which is expensive, or ship it out of state.

And ship it they do. Dick Foreman, lobbyist for Southwest Gas, says customers are being approached by California firms anxious to get rid of what is now a waste product. In fact, they can get it for free, paying only for the costs of bringing it by freight cars to Arizona where it is mixed with diesel fuel for burning.

That was news to Bob Evans, the county's air-quality chief. Contacted early last week, he said some companies had inquired about burning used oil but no one had actually applied for a permit to do so. Yet New Times turned up firms which have been doing so for years, as well as a supplier who boasts of selling about a half-million gallons of the stuff a month in Arizona. By week's end--after New Times demanded inspection reports--Evans was back on the phone insisting his staff knew about it all along and is on top of the situation.

Not exactly. Evans admits no one at his department actually checks the levels of lead and other heavy metals in the fuels being burned here, whether they are produced locally or imported from California. That apparently is left up to the companies that sell the stuff.

Dan Walden, president of All Western Oil, says he does check raw used oil when it comes to his plant before it is mixed with diesel. But his checks are nothing more than "indicators" that a batch might have high levels of certain pollutants. A full analysis is performed only when an indicator test shows potential problems; he says he would test all used oil if the state would help pay for it.

Still, Evans maintains, there's no reason to worry. County rules require most smokestacks to have devices to reduce particulate emissions. And these places are required to test smokestack gases periodically for particulates. "If we noticed any increase in particulates, any heavy metals would certainly be directly proportionate," he says.

But Tony Jones, a field supervisor in Evans' agency, says the connection is, at best, a casual one. He says the fact that smokestack-particulate emissions fall within acceptable levels is no guarantee that what is escaping doesn't include unhealthy quantities of heavy metals or PCBs.

Meanwhile, out at the Arizona State Legislature Foreman has been playing Paul Revere, decrying the export of California's waste problem to Arizona. He glosses over the fact that burning used oil has been legal--and practiced--here for years. And no one seems to be able to say exactly how much used oil is coming from California. He does know that gas customers here are cutting their heating costs by a whopping 25 percent if they use a 50-50 mixture of used oil and diesel fuel.

All this has lawmakers confused.
John Hays, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources, Welfare, Aging and Environment Committee, says he can't tell whether used oil is a real public health menace or just some bitching by Southwest Gas. And, with the legislature set to adjourn within four weeks--actually, they were supposed to be gone by last Saturday, according to their own rules--he isn't sure if there's time to do much of anything about it. Hays says it's likely lawmakers will form a special commission to study the problem during the summer, taking action next year if it appears necessary.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Howard Fischer