Friday, July 23, 1999

Dirt disposer
closes plant
in Hawaii

Pacific Thermal's exit
leaves just one permitted
treatment facility in the state

By Peter Wagner


Pacific Thermal Services, a key disposer of contaminated dirt in Hawaii, is folding its portable treatment plant and moving to greener pastures.

"It's a shame," said owner Mark Robison, who shut down operations last week.

Robison said Hawaii's stale economy slowed the redevelopment that fed his thermal absorption plant at Campbell Industrial Park.

The $1.5 million "dirt burner," built in 1992 in response to a pressing need, removed petroleum and other contaminants by incineration. But a quiet economy is not solely to blame for his departure, Robison said.

"When a state has economic hardships, the tendency across the nation has been to relax environmental cleanup standards," he said.

According to Robison, the state Department of Health several years ago changed its ground contamination standards to give hard-pressed business owners a break. While he sympathizes, he said Hawaii is failing to protect its key resource. "Most people come to see Hawaii's beautiful environment," he said. "Let's face it."

But state regulators say they've fine-tuned cleanup standards, not lowered them.

"A lot of things used to be cleaned up that never posed a significant threat to health or the environment," said Bruce Anderson, state health director. "We're not just cleaning it up because it's there anymore. We're cleaning it up when we need to."

Instead of looking for petroleum in the soil, Anderson said, the department now tests for contaminants known to pose a threat, such as benzene. "I think we're now taking a more refined, scientific approach to cleanups," he said. "It's probably resulted in less cleanup activity."

Still, Anderson worries about Pacific Thermal's departure. "If redevelopment does pick up again I'm very concerned about not having a facility in the state to handle the cleanup," he said.

Pacific Thermal once had 12 employees and processed 25,000 tons of dirt a year. It was down to six employees and 4,000 tons last year. "We finally said, 'enough's enough, pau,' " said Robison.

The company is a subsidiary of RCI Construction Corp., a $151 million company based in Seattle that does general construction in Western states. RCI Construction has about $30 million in contracts in Hawaii. Another subsidiary, RCI Environmental, Inc., operates thermal treatment plants in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.

Pacific Thermal made its debut in Hawaii during a highly publicized 1992 debacle in which Unocal Corp. tried to ship 13,000 tons of contaminated soil from its Honolulu service stations to the Marshall Islands. Turned away by protesters, the ship headed for Seattle before returning to Honolulu with the unwanted dirt.

Pacific Thermal was among several companies then seeking permits to clean contaminated dirt in Hawaii, which then had no such facility. Landowners with contamination problems _ many of them gas station owners with leaking underground tanks _ sometimes shipped the dirt to mainland disposal or treatment facilities at a cost of $600 per ton. Some dumped their dirt on back roads or in fields for lack of an affordable alternative.

The departure of Pacific Thermal, which moved to Seattle, leaves just one permitted treatment facility in Hawaii for landowners pressed by environmental regulators: PVT Land Co., a Nanakuli company which since 1993 has been treating contaminated soil with microbes. PVT, also struggling, has laid off half its former staff of 35 in the past two years.

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