WASTE/ENERGY: Ash Reuse Plagued By Negative Public Perception

While many researchers and scientists have been able to find beneficial uses for solid waste incinerator ash, the success of these projects often is plagued by public perceptions that incinerator ash is toxic waste.

One college, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, constructed an artificial off-shore reef using blocks made from ash aggregate. Since then, the reef has attracted and supported marine life.

In Florida, a road base material company called Permabase conducted a successful test using ash from a Florida-based Ogden Martin resource recovery facility. The ash was used as agreggate material in a 500-foot section of paved road, with no adverse affects on groundwater and surrounding vegetation, according to the Solid Waste Association of North America.

It seems that as long as the ash is "out of sight," it is "out of mind," but once environmental groups be-come aware of its uses, they quickly publicize perceived dangers involved with the recovered residual.

For example, the 1994 edition of the Information Please Environmental Almanac makes only three references to incinerator ash, all of them negative. One of these, under the "Highlights of the Year" section, notes that in 1993, federal authorities in Wilmington, Del., charged William P. Reilly, vice president of Coastal Carriers Corp., with directing the crew of one of the company's ships to dump 11,000 tons of Phil-adelphia incinerator ash into the Atlantic Ocean.

Another reference in the almanac, listed under "Grassroots Activities," tells the story of environmental activist Phil Forseth, a TV repair shop owner in Dayton, Minn. While attending a November 1989 hearing on a proposed landfill in his community, members of the Clean Water Action Alliance told him of county and state plans for two waste projects in Dayton.

After reading a copy of a Clean Water Fund study on the "environmental dangers of incinerator ash plans like those proposed for Dayton," according to the Almanac, Phil was so alarmed, he rallied other Dayton residents to express "their outrage at local officials' support of the ash projects." His personal lobbying efforts finally quashed the incinerator ash reusal plan and helped Phil win his campaign bid for the office of mayor of Dayton in 1990.

Recently, the North Bethesda, Md., Congress of Citizen's Associa-tion Inc., held a public hearing on the National Institute of Health's (NIH) application for a permit to build a medical waste incinerator on the NIH campus. At the hearing, "experts" from the North Bethesda group, including one retired federal government chemist and a successful engineer, warned the public of the dangers of incineration in general, and medical waste incineration ash in particular.

Some of the "medical incineration facts" distributed by the group in an information sheet included: * The incineration process changes some metals into forms that are far more toxic, more easily inhaled or ingested, more chemically reactive, and more easily leached from incinerator ashes than in the original waste.

* Pollution control devices do not eliminate toxins, but collect them, meaning that the resulting ash must be disposed of by alternate means.

* Contamination from incinerators, including those at NIH, may have long-lasting toxic and carcinogenic effects on humans, animals and the food chain in the Chesa-peake Bay region.

Carlton Wiles, senior waste management project coordinator for the National Renewable Energy Lab, speaking at a symposium on ash reuse in Elizabeth, N.J., in October of last year, noted public acceptance problems.

"At the federal level," he said, "the research emphasis is directed toward resolving technical, environmental and public policy issues associated with reuse of ash. These need to be addressed before ash reuse is widely accepted."