Incinerator project destroys unknown, unstable chemicals
By Lawrence McMahen
Taking out the garbage can be a complex and time-consuming task when it includes 40 years’ accumulation of unknown or unstable chemicals.
But let it never be said the U of S doesn’t take out its garbage.
The Department of Health, Safety & Environment (DHSE) has just finished a demanding three-month project that safely disposed of about 5,000 containers of unknown and potentially hazardous liquids, solids and gases gathered from labs across campus.
DHSE Chemical & Environmental Manager Steve Kranz says for decades there has been a gradual build-up of unknown substances on campus, as professors and lab technicians come and go without properly decommissioning laboratories and labelling all materials. While the Waste Management Facility was built in 1988, it doesn’t accept unknown substances for disposal. Since ’88, cylinders of unknown gases have been accumulating in labs, too. In addition, since the mid-1990s, Kranz says, unstable materials have also been piling up in campus labs.
Kranz learned a couple of years ago that the University of Manitoba owns a Mobile Thermal Destructor Unit (MTDU) which can safely dispose of materials like these – so when he heard last year that the University of Regina wanted to get rid of its stockpile of these substances, he teamed up with the U of R and the U of M to bring the unit to Regina and Saskatoon.
Kranz obtained a permit from Saskatchewan Environment “to destroy unknown solids, liquids and gases and unstable materials”, and when the U of R was done with the MTDU in early May, the unit was brought to an open field at the University of Saskatchewan’s Goodale Research Farm, eight kilometres southeast of Saskatoon. Kranz credits the farm’s manager, Bill Kerr, for outstanding help to the disposal project.
While required by the permit to notify anyone living within 800 metres of the sight, no-one lived that close. But Kranz says the University did inform seven households located just under one kilometre away.
“We started operating it May 11 and ran for 28 part-days until August 11,” Kranz says. The huge disposal operation consisted of trained DHSE staff in protective gear inserting canisters of the unknown or unstable materials into the unit’s three-cubic-foot incinerator box, which burned at temperatures reaching 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit.
The unit went through $3,800 worth of propane as it turned 1,216 kilograms of solid and liquid unstable or unknown materials (including their packaging), and 101 cylinders of unknown gases into harmless ash.
Kranz notes the U of S Facilities Management Division’s plumbing shop built a customized piping system to help the DHSE staff bleed the cylinders of compressed gases into the Mobile Thermal Destructor.
“I feel extremely satisfied and proud that we have managed to do this,” Kranz says. Staff from DHSE, especially the Waste Management Facility, all contributed many hours to the undertaking, he adds. Weather posed a big challenge throughout the project, with rain and wind making it impossible to burn substances on many days.
The whole operation cost more than $20,000. Kranz says the Mobile Thermal Destructor Unit was back to its U of M home within a few days of the wind-up of burning at Goodale Farm on Aug. 11.
Kranz and his counterpart from the U of R will make a joint presentation on the disposal operation later this month to the Colleges and Universities Safety Association conference being held in Nipawin. And by the end of December, DHSE has to submit a final report on the project to Saskatchewan Environment.
Ideally, there shouldn’t be a growing stockpile of unknown or unstable materials on campus, and Kranz says the large quantity that did build up “means there was a breakdown in the system”.
“The easiest way to avoid this problem is to ensure there are no unknown materials and that people carry out proper labelling using the standard Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS)” – which includes bold symbols for dangerous substances that are poisonous, reactive, corrosive, infectious, combustible, or explosive.
Kranz adds that many of the materials that were disposed of this summer may not have been actual “waste” materials – but because they were unknown, they had to be treated that way. If people who moved labs or who left the University had properly decommissioned the labs and labelled their chemical containers, much of the time and expenditure by the University could have been avoided.