Harvy Lipman Staff writer
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, October 5, 1986

When it first began burning garbage to produce steam in 1982, the big generating plant near the state Capitol in Albany was touted as the way to safely dispose of waste piling up in local landfills and endangering groundwater with toxic chemicals. Local and state officials promised the smoke spewing from the incinerator would be safe - even though it was located in the middle of one of the city's most densely-populated neighborhoods.

Four years later, the Albany plant, operated by the state, is being called the "worst in the world" by one technical expert who has toured dozens of similar waste-to-energy plants in Europe, Japan and the United States. In fact, a new study obtained by The Times Union suggests that the amount of dioxin escaping from the plant's smokestacks could cause 100 times as many cancer cases as the state Health Department had estimated last year.

If state and local officials have their way, newer versions of the Albany plant will be built in neighborhoods across the Capital District as garbage continues to pile up and landfills are forced to close because of groundwater pollution problems.

Already, proposals for new resource-recovery plants - so named because they burn garbage to produce energy, thereby "recovering" a natural resource - are under consideration in Rensselaer, Saratoga, Albany, Columbia, Greene, Washington, Warren, Essex, Montgomery and Fulton counties.

But opponents, like Environmental Planning Lobby executive director Judith Enck, worry that in shifting from landfills to incinerators "New York may in fact be swapping its ground water problem for air pollution problems."

Originally fitted with oil-burning furnaces, the Sheridan Avenue plant was converted to burn garbage at the suggestion of the late Mayor Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd.

The incinerator - which together with a city-run garbage shredding operation makes up ANSWERS, the Albany New York Solid Waste Energy Recovery System - was one of the earliest such plants to be operated in New York. Only six others exist across the state.

In reviewing the Sheridan Avenue plant's emissions last year, state Health Department scientists estimated that for every million people exposed to that much dioxin 24 hours a day for 70 years, no more than 12 would develop cancer.

Health Commissioner Dr. David Axelrod noted the dioxin levels "are within federal public health risk guidelines." State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Henry Williams chimed in that the levels were "acceptable."

However, a new risk assessment conducted by Daniel Wartenberg, a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, concluded that the levels are anything but acceptable. Wartenberg is the first researcher outside the state government to analyze the ANSWERS data.

He found the facility was emitting enough dioxin to cause about 300 additional cancer cases, given the same sort of 70-year exposure.

Wartenberg's study also is the first to look at the health effects of emissions besides dioxin. Unlike the state - which looked only at the health effects of the dioxins and dibenzofurans coming out of the smokestacks - Wartenberg also analyzed the impact of several cancer-causing metals emitted by the plant.

He found that the amount of nickel coming out of the plant's smokestacks would cause as many cancers as the dioxin. Worse, Wartenberg estimated that the cancer risk from the levels of chromium escaping those smokestacks was 100 times greater than that of either the nickel or dioxin.

That would mean, even using the Health Department's dioxin estimate, that for every 1 million people exposed as many as 1,200 could develop cancer from the plant's emissions.

"That's only looking at cancer," Wartenberg added. "There could be other health effects."

Though the plant sits in the Sheridan Hollow area of Albany, the area most affected by its emissions is Arbor Hill. That's because ANSWERS is located in a valley, and the top of its smokestacks are virtually level with most of the homes in Arbor Hill, a largely black and poor neighborhood where some brownstones are being converted into middle-class housing.

When told of Wartenberg's findings, Arbor Hill Alderman Nebraska Brace said they reaffirm his ongoing concern about the plant.

"Over the years, I've had numerous complaints from the people of Arbor Hill concerning pollution from ANSWERS, although I haven't heard anything recently," he said. "The city has seen fit to make me chairman of the Common Council's environmental committee, and one of my projects for 1986 and 1987 is to look into ANSWERS."

Wartenberg's analysis is based on EnCon tests done at the plant in 1984. EnCon officials and the plant's management insist that over the past year they've added a series of modifications to the facility that have drastically cut the amount of pollution it emits.

Those assurances are being challenged, however, by Allen Hershkowitz, director of the Solid Waste and Energy Project for INFORM - a New York City- based organization specializing in technical research on conservation issues.

Over the past several years, Hershkowitz has toured resource recovery plants worldwide. He's visited the Albany plant three times - most recently in May, when he assessed the changes made to its operation. His conclusion:

"Albany is the worst plant I've seen in the world."

In an article to be published later this month in INFORM's newsletter, Hershkowitz charges the plant is plagued by five key shortcomings:

*It has "no reliable monitoring of furnace combustion or of stack emissions of any pollutants;"

*Its "new $80,000 combustion monitoring equipment for carbon monoxide and oxygen was not working right four months after it was installed last February;"

*Its "dioxin emissions are 10 times those of a Westchester (County) plant INFORM has examined;"

*"Plant workers have not studied the complex processes associated with garbage burning" and;

*"The original underground conveyors for handling potentially toxic ash residues were abandoned five years ago and uncovered dump trucks now spill such residue onto the public sidewalk."

INFORM, which describes itself as a non-partisan organization, draws its major funding from such sources as the Exxon Corporation, Mobil Oil Corporation, the BankAmerica Foundation, the Bristol-Myers Company and Champion International Corporation.

Plant manager John Barberis disagrees with Hershkowitz' assessment. During a recent tour of the plant, he acknowledged that some of the furnace monitoring equipment "had problems" when it was first installed. But Barberis insisted the monitors have been working properly for a couple of months.

"Before we had this equipment," he said, "We didn't know what we were doing. Now we know what we're doing."

Barberis acknowledged that the state has no formal training program for waste-to-energy plant operators, although EnCon is now working with a leading engineering firm on creating such a course. Barberis noted that every operator at the plant receives six months of on-the-job training.

The plant also has newly installed equipment which measures the density of the smoke coming out of the smokestacks. That equipment wasn't installed until after Hershkowitz last toured the plant, Barberis added.

He said steps have also been taken to address problems discovered during last year's EnCon tests at the plant, which found the steam facility was emitting as much as 10 times the amount of particulates allowed under its federal operating permit. Particulates - the small pieces of ash and unburned garbage which come out of the smokestacks - are a very important pollution measurement because they carry most of the toxic materials that escape from the plant.

EnCon attributed that high particulate level to two problems: First, that the furnace wasn't working at full efficiency, allowing large volumes of unburnt waste to fly out the smokestacks; and second, that the pollution control devices at the plant weren't adequately maintained.

Barberis said the new equipment has corrected the furnace efficiency problem. The second problem has been addressed by modifying the machinery used to remove particulates, he said.

But that type of pollution control device is far from being state- of- the-art. In fact, there's considerable debate within the scientific community over whether even the most modern pollution control devices can remove most of the dioxin from the smokestack emissions, although even some environmentalists believe new systems called baghouse filters and scrubbers can do an adequate job.

"If you built a modern, well-designed incinerator that does a good job and maintain the system properly, you could be able to remove 95 percent of the dioxin," said Theodore Goldfarb, a professor of environmental chemistry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who has worked with a number of environmental groups.

He was quick to add, however, that the Albany plant's system hardly fits that description.

EnCon is planning to do a new set of pollution tests at the facility this fall, and Barberis insisted, "I'm sure they'll find our particulate level is down below what our operating permit allows."

Hershkowitz isn't so sure. Based on his assessment of the plant's operation, he believes the dioxin emissions at Sheridan Avenue remain a topic for concern. He pointed out that, at least when EnCon did its last round of tests, the incinerator was emitting dioxin levels 160 times higher than new standards set in Sweden (which has the most stringent dioxin emission guideline in the world) and 20 times higher than "the best American plants."

To which Wartenberg added, "Most of the argument over building these plants is about dioxin, but that's not the only thing to be worried about."

Wartenberg acknowledged that health risk assessments such as his and the one by the Health Department frequently amount to little more than educated guesswork. In the course of doing such studies, scientists are confronted with dozens of junctures at which they must make assumptions about a chemical's effect.

This is particularly true with dioxin, because there is very little scientific data about its effect on humans, although tests on laboratory animals have led both the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program to label it a probable human cancer-causing agent.

There are several different scientifically-accepted approaches to doing dioxin risk assessments, Wartenberg said. "It's not a matter of right or wrong. We just don't have the information, and that's where a lot of the variability comes in."

Wartenberg is not the first researcher to suggest the Health Department has followed methods designed to give the lowest cancer risk estimate. Last January, a report by the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College, headed by environmentalist Barry Commoner, charged that the department had seriously underestimated the cancer risk at two other garbage- burning plants in Peekskill and Niagara Falls.

Both Wartenberg and the head of the Health Department bureau which does risk assessments agreed the public shouldn't put too much stock in the actual number of cancer cases predicted by such studies.

"You can't say a chemical will in fact have whatever is the numerical impact you put on your risk assessment," noted John Hawley, acting director of the Health Department's Bureau of Toxic Substance Assessment.

"Wherever you come to a point where you have to make an assumption, you intentionally err on the side of safety," Hawley added. A risk assessment's numbers are "inherently unprovable," he said, "because you're talking about risks at a level so low there's no way you could measure them in the real world."

The real value of these assessments, Hawley concluded, is that they allow scientists to compare the dangers of different chemicals. Wartenberg said that's precisely why he's so concerned by his ANSWERS calculations.

"No matter what method you use, when I look at chromium (emissions) I get a cancer risk that's 100 times higher than the dioxin risk," he explained.

His studies lead Wartenberg to the conclusion that "a lot more study should be done. I don't think we know enough about the combustion process to build more incinerators right now."

Where is all that chromium coming from?

"When we looked at that, we had two questions," explained Arthur Fossa, director of EnCon's Bureau of Toxic Air Sampling. "First, was there anything in the garbage that accounted for it? We couldn't come up with anything. Next, did we do anything unusual when we were taking samples?"

That's something Fossa said he intends to look into when EnCon does its next set of tests.

But some critics, including Stony Brook's Goldfarb, charge that EnCon's testing methods underestimate the plant's problems.

"The (EnCon) measurements were all done during optimal operating conditions," said Goldfarb, who has worked as a consultant to several communities planning to build garbage incinerators.

"Whenever there was an upset condition where the combustion efficiency isn't complete, they stopped the testing," environmentalist Enck complained. "That's roughly one-third of the time the plant's in operation."

"We ran six dioxin tests, each one lasting three hours," countered EnCon emission test manager Fossa. "We only actually shut down the testing for a total of about five minutes, and then only out of concern that there could be damage to our equipment. We're as interested as anyone in knowing what's going on when things are going wrong in the furnace."

Both Wartenberg and Goldfarb also argued that the Health Department's assessment further underestimated the health risk from the plant by failing to analyze two key factors:

That different toxic chemicals interact with each other or with other chemicals in the environment, and that people can be exposed in ways other than inhaling those chemicals.

"What most people do is look at dioxin in the air," Wartenberg said. "The problem with that is they're only looking at dioxin and they're only looking at air emissions. They leave out the effect of deposition on the soil, where children play in it or it can be taken into the food chain."

In fact, when Commoner's group added the impact of other routes of dioxin exposure to its analysis of the cancer risks posed by the Peekskill and Niagara Falls plants, it found that the maximum risk was more than 40 times higher than the state's estimates.

Hawley acknowledged the Health Department analysis didn't examine how chemicals react with one another in the environment. Given the thousands of chemicals people are regularly exposed to, he added, "I don't know how you would" do such an analysis.

The department, however, is now doing risk assessments for more than a dozen compounds known to be emitted from garbage incinerators.

Those assessments, Hawley said, will take into account various ways that people can be exposed to toxic chemicals. He expects to be making recommendations to EnCon by the end of the year. At that point, he added, the matter will be out of his department's hands.

"We're not a regulatory agency. Setting regulations is up to EnCon."

NEXT: How does EnCon's regulation of garbage incinerators stack up to standards elsewhere?