For more than 30 years, Ward Transformer, a Superfund site on 11 acres near Interstate 540 and the Raleigh-Durham Airport, has bled PCBs into dirt and ditch, woods and stream. The hazardous chemicalspolychlorinated biphenylshave trickled downstream into tributaries including Little Brier Creek and Brier Creek, flowing into the Brier Creek Reservoir and the popular fishing spot Lake Crabtree, where it threatens to spill into waterways running through the Raleigh Greenway.

Now, two years after the Environmental Protection Agency deemed contamination at and from Ward Transformer so dangerous as to warrant a “time-critical removal action”in other words, very urgentnot a shovel load of dirt has been hauled away. But next month, the EPA and the eight companies, including Progress Energy, charged with cleaning up 50 tons of contaminated dirt are expected to announce a cleanup method, including one that a prominent PCB expert says is essentially a dioxin-producing incinerator with a gussied up name: direct-fired thermal desorption.

While not the cheapest solution, Progress Energy spokeswoman Dana Yaganian says despite the additional cost, the companies are leaning toward the technology because “the equipment can be set up more quickly.”

The companies are also expected to name the winning bidder to conduct the short-term remedy; among the contenders is EQ, which is responsible for the chemical fire at an Apex storage facility.

Many of these negotiations have flown under the public’s radar. The Joint Local Government Task Force on PCBs at the Ward Transformer site, an oversight group composed of Wake County government officials, scientists and environmentalists, disbanded more than six months ago when it was decided there was nothing more to monitor. The last public meeting about Ward Transformer was held in June and was scantly attended. Little additional public input on the removal is legally required, because by designating Ward Transformer a time-critical removal action site, the EPA and the eight companies can, and will, bypass the extensive public comment about the cleanup method that would otherwise be required under federal law.

According to an August press release from the EPA, only after a contractor and a cleanup method are selected will there be a public meeting to “explain the details of the cleanup to the community.”

However, EPA Region 4 spokeswoman Laura Niles says the agency has tried to keep the process “very open,” adding that there will be more extensive public comment when a long-term remediation plan begins. That timeline has not been set.

Stephen Lester is science director at the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a national organization started by former Love Canal resident Lois Gibbs. Lester contends that in regards to the Ward site, the EPA has undercut the spirit of the law governing time-critical removal actions.

“This law was intended to deal with a crisis, to move quickly, in a month or so. There is no justification for Ward being a time-critical removal action when it’s been on the National Priorities List since 2003,” he says.

The National Priorities List, often abbreviated as NPL, contains the most hazardous sites in the United States. They’re also known as Superfund sites.

Niles acknowledges that time-critical removal actions, while not as pressing as emergency actions, are intended to address environmental threats within three to six months, not two years. “We would have liked to have seen the soil removed sooner, but all the steps were necessary,” Niles says, adding one hurdle was settling a financial agreement with the eight companies paying for the cleanup.

The semantics of “incineration” and “direct-fired thermal desorption” obscure the similarities between the two technologies, says Lester, who, as a member of a National Academy of Sciences committee, co-authored A Risk Management Study for PCB Contaminants. “The process and technology are different,” he adds. “But in terms of emissions, it’s fundamentally similar to incineration.”

With direct-fired thermal desorption, contaminated soil is placed on a conveyor belt leading to a kiln that is much like a clothes dryer. Inside, a flame burns the soil, which then is fed to an afterburner to destroy the PCBs on site. Gas from the PCB destruction is cooled, passed through a baghouse to trap contaminated dust, then run through scrubbers to control chlorine, and finally sent up the stack. The rate of emissions is much higher than those with indirect-fired thermal desorption, and those gases generally contain some level of dioxin, a byproduct of burned PCBs and one of the most hazardous known chemicals.

According to EPA documents, direct-fired thermal desorption units are regulated as incinerators.

Using another method, indirect-fired thermal desorption, the flame doesn’t touch the soil but rather heats the kiln containing the dirt. PCBs are extracted from the soil and the contaminated condensed liquid is shipped off-site to an approved hazardous waste facility. There is no PCB destruction at the site.

This technology also produces emissions, although they are less than the direct-fired method. The gases are treated with carbon and high-efficiency particulate air filters to clean them of contaminants. Dioxins released from the stacks are typically near non-detection levels. The indirect method was used at a Warren County site where PCBs were collected and put in a landfill after a Ward subcontractor dumped them along miles of North Carolina roadsides.

In both cases, state and federal regulators require emissions tests. However, the contractor collects and reports its own data, which is then reviewed by environmental officials.

In using this terminology, the EPA and cleanup industry avoid the politically explosive word “incinerator.” Activists nationwide have defeated efforts to place incinerators in their communities because of the potential for dioxin emissions.

There were concerns last May at a pre-bid meeting for the Ward site that the public could perceive this technology as incineration. In minutes issued by technical consultants Golder Associates, a question was asked: “Will it be seen as an incinerator?” The answer: “We have no communication with Wake County. EPA has indicated that N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources has no opposition to thermal desorption, but we’ve had no contact with DENR on this issue.”

Raleigh Associate City Attorney Dan McLawhorn, who attended the Joint Task Force meetings as a member of city staff, says the definition of thermal desorption changes. “I started out believing it was distillation. Then I began researching, talking to people and hearing different definitions. Each time I talked with someone about it, it got closer to incineration.”

McLawhorn adds, “The technology can be effective; it depends on how well it’s operated, and it may vary depending on the individual piece of equipment.”

In selecting a contractor for a cleanup method, the eight companies responsible for the cleanup narrowed the bids to three firms (cost estimates are confidential until an agreement is signed):

  • Compass/CCI specializes in direct-fired thermal desorption, the favored technology. Compass also has an inside connection: It is a client of Thomas MacGowan, an incineration expert hired by the companies to advise them on a cleanup method. Since the EPA isn’t paying for the cleanup, bidding isn’t subject to federal conflict-of-interest laws.

  • Entact, from Greensboro, bid on an indirect-fired thermal desorption method.

  • Also under consideration is EQ, which owns a toxic waste landfill in Michigan, where contaminated soil excavated from Ward would be shipped.

Like incinerators, direct-fired thermal desorption plants have been rejected by communities as activists have learned more about them. Bruce Anderson, executive director of TEACHToxic Environment Affects Children’s Healthin Tom’s River, N.J., is among many community members who defied the government’s plans to place the technology at a former dye manufacturing plant. “We didn’t let them deceive us,” Anderson says. “Thermal desorption is an incinerator.”

After extensive public outcry and questions from lawmakers, the EPA approved a method using bacteria, also known as bioremediation, to clean up the contamination.

Jim Sherman, a toxicologist who served on the task force overseeing the Ward Transformer site, says he’s not clear on the details of thermal desorption, but that he’s concerned about cleanup delays. “The community has let down its guard because we thought we had an agreement. We had a big celebration that this was done. The task force disbanded because of this.”

It appears that the EPA and the eight companies have Wake County in a bind: The community has long demanded a rapid cleanup, and faced with what appears to be a quick and overdue fix, there may be no outcry over the cleanup method, even if it carries the risk of dioxin emissions.

“The main thing is that there is unacceptable, uncontrolled contamination spreading through Wake County,” says Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker. “The exact remedy may not be perfect.”