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Neighbors Debate What to Do With Toxic Waste in Arkansas Town

December 31, 1993

JACKSONVILLE, Ark. (AP) _ The battle over a plan to burn tons of dioxin-laced waste may come down to thousandths of a percentage point and whose definition of ″acceptable risk″ a judge believes.

Acting on a lawsuit filed by environmentalists, a federal judge in early December ordered a shutdown of the incinerator being used to detroy the toxic waste while he reviews test results. He is expected to rule in January.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the state Pollution Control and Ecology Department say the incinerator meets the federal requirement that 99.9999 percent of the dioxin be destroyed. That standard was met during test burns, when a material harder to destroy than dioxin was burned, the agencies say.

Opponents, however, claim that the destruction rate was 99.96 percent.

In the meantime, residents of this city of 29,000 outside Little Rock are at odds over what should be done with the 3,000 barrels of highly toxic waste at the old Vertac Chemical Co. site.

″I would rather that they move the dioxin material out,″ said Cordell Casey. ″I don’t believe that anything that you burn can be burned pure without any problems.″

Others say incineration is the safest way to get rid of the waste.

″The longer we delay, to me, the greater the risk is,″ said Lindy Bollen, a dentist. ″I’m not happy that it’s there but I certainly will be happier when it’s gone.″

″I’m for burning it and getting it out of there,″ said Roy Myers, who has lived near the site for 22 years.

The drums contain byproducts of herbicides and pesticides produced by four chemical companies that operated over a 40-year span at the site near a Jacksonville neighborhood. During the Vietnam War, the plant produced Agent Orange.

Dioxin causes cancer in laboratory animals but has not been proven to cause cancer in humans. Environmentalists have condemned it as one of the most dangerous substances known.

After environmentalists argued that dangerous levels of dioxin were escaping unburned, U.S. District Judge Stephen Reasoner halted the incineration.

Rick Ehrhart, the EPA’s remedial project manager at Vertac, said that EPA air monitors on the plant’s perimeter have shown that the incinerator operates within the government’s ″acceptable risk″ level.

But Mick Harrison, a lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, which represents opponents of the incinerator, said that the EPA doesn’t have accurate air samples and hasn’t studied the risk to the food chain.

″The burning of the waste will be an immediate endangerment to public health and an unacceptable risk that would literally poison thousands of people,″ he said.

The site, which is on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list, has been one of the biggest environmental issues of President-elect Clinton’s 12 years as governor. Clinton has supported the incineration.

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