Preventing PCB Contamination of Public Waste Oil Sites

May 1, 2014

If changing your vehicle’s oil is on your spring cleaning to-do list, the question of what to do with the used oil can be an issue.  It can’t be poured into the storm sewer, since storm pipes flow directly into our lakes and streams.  Nor can you pour it down the sanitary sewer drain in your home.

Fortunately for Madison residents, there is an easy and environmentally-safe solution at three waste oil recycling sites around the city.  The free, self-service disposal tanks are located on N. First St., Wheeler Rd., and E. Dean Ave.  City officials stress that the only material accepted at these drop-off sites is new or used motor oil and automatic transmission fluid.

A fourth site, located on Madison’s west side on Speedway Rd., was closed in January 2013 due to contamination by PCB-tainted oil.  Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were banned in the United States in 1979 due to their harmful effects on human health and the environment.  Yet PCB-containing oil produced prior to the ban is still around.

City Engineer, Rob Phillips, said recent dumping of PCB-contaminated oil into the recycling tanks is both illegal and a cause for serious concern.  Cleaning the tanks is costly to taxpayers and puts the future of the waste oil recycling program in jeopardy.

“Even the smallest quantity of PCB-contaminated oil generates a costly cleanup for Madison taxpayers,” said Phillips.  Engineering Operations staff, Andrew Solberg, said cleaning a PCB-contaminated tank costs about $15,000 each event.  The contamination has also been expensive for the City’s oil recycling contractor, Safety-Kleen Systems, Inc.   If just one gallon of PCB-tainted oil is illegally dumped into a City recycling tank, it creates a 500-gallon problem. 

Because the oil recycling sites are open 24 hours a day and are unattended, the City cannot question and test the oil of every resident using the service.  But in its commitment to the environment, the City now tests each collection tank for PCBs, prior to pumping out for recycling each week. 

The City is also upgrading the sites with new tanks that have two separate compartments.  After one side fills up with used oil, the City can sample it for PCBs and “lock it out” while waiting for the test results.  In the interim, the other side of the tank can be opened for used oil collection, allowing the sites to remain open during weekly testing or if contaminated in the future.

While City staff and Safety-Kleen are working to mitigate the costs of illegal dumping of PCB-tainted oil, educating the public is the best option.   “These measures are no substitute for following proper, legal requirements as far as what is acceptable to dispose of and what is against the law,” Phillips said.  The sites can only accept new or used motor oil and automatic transmission fluid from City residents.   The sites cannot be used by commercial contractors or accept oil from electrical devices encountered during a building demolition, for example.   Illegal disposal of PCB-tainted oil in the tanks can result in a fine of up to $25,000 and/or up to a year in prison.

Why does proper disposal of PCBs matter?

Due to their non-flammability and electrical insulating properties, PCBs were once used in a range of industrial practices.  PCBs may be present in products and materials produced before 1979, including transformers, capacitors, electrical equipment, oil used in hydraulic motors, fluorescent light ballasts, caulking, adhesives and tapes, and oil-based paint and plastics.

PCBs have been shown to cause cancer as well as a variety of adverse health effects on the endocrine, immune, reproductive, and nervous system of humans and animals.  Once in the environment, they do not readily break down and accumulate in plant and animal tissue, “biomagnifying” at each step in the food chain.  Even though PCBs have been banned since 1979, their legacy continues to be a primary concern for the health of people and wildlife.  For more information on PCBs, visit: http://www.epa.gov/waste/hazard/tsd/pcbs/about.htm.

If you have oil suspected to contain PCBs, contact Amy Walden at the WDNR (608-266-0272) to find out how to safely test and legally dispose of the material.

If you are looking to dispose of other chemicals such as antifreeze, solvents, or paint waste, contact the Dane County Clean Sweep program at (608) 243-0368, or visit on-line at www.danecountycleansweep.com

The City of Madison used oil public drop-off sites are located at:

Contact:
  • Andy Solberg, 608-267-9408