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Arsenic fears rise over treated wood disposal

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


Pressure-treated lumber has enough toxic chemicals in it to qualify as hazardous waste. But years ago, industry lobbyists in Washington secured an exemption from hazardous waste laws.

Because of that, tons of treated wood decks and playgrounds that wear out can be dumped in unlined landfills.

Now, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is concerned that the leaking arsenic poses a threat to drinking water. At the West Pasco landfill, for example, tests in the mid 1990s showed arsenic levels 1 1/2 times the level the state considers safe for drinking water.

The wood-treatment industry's trade association says the state tests don't prove that the arsenic is coming from treated wood.

The DEP predicts the problem only will get worse. The tonnage of pressure-treated lumber going to landfills is expected to increase seven-fold over the next 25 years.

Some counties recycle wood piles by turning them into mulch. But when pressure-treated lumber is chopped into mulch, the contamination can spread more readily to soil and ground water.

"My concern is what happens when (CCA-treated wood) is recycled into mulch and you put it in your garden and start working with it with your hands," said DEP Secretary David Struhs. "People think they are doing something environmentally responsible by recycling the wood, but they are creating a public health hazard."

State Rep. Ron Greenstein, a South Florida Democrat, has filed a bill that would require landfill operators to prove to the state that they shouldn't have liners. If they couldn't prove it, they would have to put in a liner -- an expensive proposition.

The wood-treatment industry has hired one of Florida's most powerful lobbying firms, Hopping, Green, Sams & Smith, to monitor the Legislature this year. Greenstein says that lobbyists from Washington recently flew to Tallahassee and took him and two other lawmakers to lunch to downplay the state's concerns about leaking landfills.

Meanwhile, the EPA is reviewing CCA and has proposed tougher limits for the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water -- which could create regulatory problems at landfills that leak arsenic.

"We're concerned," said Richard Gentry, lobbyist for the Florida Homebuilders Association. "If we have to start sending that stuff to a lined landfill, it's going to get real expensive.

"I do know there are alternatives to arsenic. I suspect that, very shortly, we're going to be looking at alternatives. We're not out to poison anybody."

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