Old Motor Oil Is Dirty But Is It `Toxic'?

For most Americans, changing the oil in their car is just a fact of life. But now, it is becoming an environmental headache as well.

Americans generate about 1.4 billion gallons of used oil every year--roughly 63% from vehicles and the rest from industrial sources. Only 55% of it is recycled. Much of the rest, laden with lead, arsenic, cadmium, or other toxic matter, is dumped and left to seep into groundwater or otherwise taint the earth. Even recycling has not been done in the most sanitary way. In all, 47 plants that process old oil are on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of the most polluted industrial sites--although since such facilities usually serve several purposes, it is hard to tell how many were listed because of their used-oil activities. Now, the EPA is under growing pressure to impose tough regulations on used oil by declaring it a hazardous waste. And this proposal, which may not be adopted for another year, is causing divisions among both oil recyclers and environmentalists.

The upside is that putting used oil on the EPA's list of toxics could pay environmental dividends by forcing companies that handle the stuff to install better safeguards against spills and leaks. The downside is that such a move could cripple the growing network that recycles oil without all the extra precautions used with toxic materials. Indeed, collection points, such as service stations, and buyers of recycled oil, such as steel mills and asphalt plants, might shy away from the expense of equipping themselves to handle hazardous waste. Says Debra G. Coy, an environmental analyst at County NatWest in Washington: "The danger the EPA faces is that if a regulation is too tough, people could begin dumping the stuff down the drain because they don't want to deal with the regulatory structure."

TAKING SIDES. The EPA's ultimate decision could determine which of two major camps in the $400 million oil-recycling business will thrive. The status quo is favored by the companies--among them Petroleum Recycling Corp. in Signal Hill, Calif., and DeMenno/Kerdoon in Compton, Calif.--that currently take in 85% of all recycled oil and modify it to make industrial boiler fuels. Supporting the stricter listing is the Hazardous Waste Treatment Council, a trade group representing such re-refiners as Safety-Kleen Corp. in Elgin, Ill. These companies clean used oil and resell it as motor oil and other lubricants.

Because the re-refiners already are licensed to handle toxics, they wouldn't incur new expenses if used oil were classified as a hazardous waste. But their rival recyclers would. As a result, many of those fear being forced out of business. Says Christopher Harris, general counsel of the National Oil Recyclers Assn.: "The reason there's a great push by the Hazardous Waste Treatment Council is that Safety-Kleen wants to push further into the used-oil area."

Unfair, respond re-refiners, who say they are motivated by environmental concerns. "It's not a competitiveness issue, it's a proper-management-standards issue," says Scott E. Fore, vice-president for environment, health, and safety at Safety-Kleen, which collected $82 million of its $588 million in revenues last year from re-refining operations. Fore says there will be business for all as the public's concern for the environment boosts demand for recycled oil.

Until now, the opposing views have handcuffed the EPA. In 1986, the agency decided not to list used oil as hazardous waste, for fear that would price the oil out of the fuel market and cripple recycling efforts. But the pro-environment Natural Resources Defense Council and the Hazardous Waste Treatment Council challenged the EPA decision, successfully contending in the U. S. Court of Appeals in Washington that the impact on recycling programs shouldn't be the issue. Says NRDC lawyer Jacqueline M. Warren: "You decide if something is hazardous by looking at its toxicity."

BENIGN SOLUTION. Despite that ruling, the EPA still has leeway to decide that used oil isn't a hazardous waste. It seems that phasing out leaded gasoline has cut the amount of lead that seeps into motor oil -- so used oil may not be as toxic as it was. And earlier samples may have been tainted by solvents that gas stations threw in with old oil. "It's a tough issue and is not easily decided," says Michael J. Petruska, chief of the EPA's regulatory development branch.

But a solution exists, argue the NRDC and the Treatment Council, which sued again last year in U. S. District Court in Washington for a faster ruling. They say the EPA could look to California, which in 1987 classified used oil as a hazardous waste--sort of. But the state managed to placate warring interests by requiring only minimum storage and record keeping procedures at collection points--and declassifying the oil once it has been recycled and tested for purity. This frees both service stations that collect used oil and industrial customers that burn the recycled product from most hazardous-waste burdens. While recyclers have higher expenses because they have to treat old oil as toxic, neither their raw material supplies nor demand for their recycled product has been interrupted. And the amount of oil California recycles has jumped by more than 30% since 1987.

Whether the EPA will follow the California pattern is unclear. The agency, the NRDC, and the Treatment Council are negotiating a settlement of the latest lawsuit. Perhaps that may finally end what has already been a long and squeaky regulatory ride.

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