the film

Throwing the Switch on PCBs

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, October 9, 2008

Bonneville Power, EPA celebrate toxic compound's removal from capacitors

A couple of generations ago, polychlorinated biphenyl was the wonder substance of the electrical industry.

Devised in the 19th century, the man-made chemical was a fantastic insulator, stubbornly nonflammable and retained its chemical properties for decades on end. Beginning in the 1920s, utility companies filled electrical capacitors with hundreds of millions of pounds of the stuff.

All of which led to the curious scene in a cavernous equipment repair hangar Wednesday on the Bonneville Power Administration's Ross Complex in Hazel Dell.

"Our capacitors are PCB-free," read a sign hanging on a wall. "Congratulations employees."

Over the past 17 years, the BPA spent $102 million switching out more than 100,000 capacitors across a high-voltage transmission system spanning four states. BPA officials decided it made sense to minimize the risk of the mineral-like oil leaking out of the capacitors and endangering public health and the environment.

They switched out the last of the capacitors this summer.

"Unfortunately, the adverse effects of this wonder chemical weren't known for many years," Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Elin Miller told BPA employees Wednesday. "We're now left with a toxic legacy of persistent bioaccumulating compounds in our global environment, our wildlife and even in our own bodies."

Because the compound doesn't break down, it lingers and accumulates as one fish eats another. Research shows long-term exposure to PCBs can cause cancer and other health problems. Federal health researchers have raised concern about the pollutant slowing behavioral and neurological development in babies born to women eating PCB-contaminated fish.

The United States banned the manufacture of PCBs in the late 1970s, though there is no law requiring it to be removed from functioning equipment.

'We don't have that risk' Miller joined BPA Administrator Steve Wright to celebrate the fact that Bonneville voluntarily pulled capacitors from 69 substations, which link together 70 percent of the transmission grid serving Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Although BPA eventually would have swapped in PCB-free capacitors as part of routine maintenance, officials said they accelerated the process by at least a decade.

"There's always a chance for an accident," Miller said. "They proactively took this on, so we don't have that risk."

The colorless PCB compounds comprised roughly 10 percent of the 10 to 100 gallons of mineral-like oil in each capacitor, said Jim Meyer, Bonneville's manager of pollution prevention and abatement. Even though few capacitors were actually known to be leaking, Meyer said federal law required exceedingly careful handling, inspection and storage of PCB-laden material.

The new capacitors contain low-level benzene rather than PCBs.

Wednesday's celebration underscored a rising sense of urgency among federal environmental regulators focused on PCBs in the Columbia River. Miller said the EPA will soon target four toxic substances -- mercury, DDT, chemical flame retardants and PCBs -- as part of a plan to reduce toxic pollution in the Columbia River.

BPA's action removes a potential source of new pollution.

"We don't have a perfect handle on all the sources of PCBs getting in the river," said Scott Downey, the EPA's Northwest regional director of the pesticides and toxics. "We're trying to start with the low-hanging fruit."

Erik Robinson
Throwing the Switch on PCBs
The Columbian, October 9, 2008

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation