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Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

Benefits of the PCB Cleanup and Disposal Program

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are toxic chemicals that would pose a risk to communities if improperly managed or controlled. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) works to ensure the safe cleanup and disposal of PCBs. The PCB Cleanup and Disposal Program benefits communities by ensuring that sites contaminated with PCBs are cleaned up to reduce risks and by ensuring that materials contaminated with PCBs are safely managed and disposed of in landfills or destroyed in other types of waste management units. EPA does this through the implementation of TSCA section 6(e), which imposes prohibitions on and requirements for the manufacturing, processing, distribution, use, and disposal of PCBs through the PCB regulations. These regulations are codified in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) in part 761.

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What are PCBs? Why are PCBs dangerous?

PCBs are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in hundreds of products, including electrical equipment, plasticizers and dyes/pigments. They were manufactured in the United States from 1929 until intentional manufacturing was banned in 1979. PCBs, if released into the environment, persist for long periods of time and can bioaccumulate (i.e., increase in concentration) in small organisms and in fish over time. People and animals who consume PCBs may be exposed to PCBs. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals and adversely impact their immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems. Studies have also shown that PCBs may have carcinogenic and other adverse effects in humans as well.

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EPA's Role in Controlling Exposure to PCB Waste

Key aspects of EPA’s PCB Cleanup and Disposal Program include:

  • Tracking and quantifying regulated PCB waste in the United States;
  • Reviewing and approving cleanup plans so that sites contaminated with PCBs are revitalized and that contaminated material is handled, stored and disposed of properly;
  • Issuing operating approvals to PCB storage and disposal facilities to ensure that PCB wastes are safely managed and disposed;
  • Enforcing the regulations and the terms and conditions in PCB cleanup, storage and disposal approvals to minimize the release of PCBs;
  • Answering questions from the public and the regulated community relating to the use, cleanup, storage and disposal of PCBs;
  • Monitoring and assessing emerging issues and innovative technologies for PCB cleanup and disposal; and
  • Coordinating with other EPA program offices, other federal agencies, states, local agencies and stakeholders concerning PCB matters.

The following sections highlight the importance of some of these activities.

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Tracking/Quantifying Regulated PCB Waste

EPA assigns identification numbers to commercial entities that store, transport, dispose, or conduct research on PCBs (see 40 CFR 761.205). This ensures that regulated PCB wastes are properly tracked and managed until disposal. Approximately 9,000 of these types of facilities have managed PCB waste, as shown in EPA’s national list of PCB facilities.  

Even though intentional PCB manufacturing was banned in the United States in 1979, some previously manufactured PCBs remain in use today and need to be properly managed as they become waste. EPA tracks the quantities of regulated PCB waste being managed across the country. Most facilities that manage and dispose of PCB waste are required to document how much PCB waste they handle each year in annual reports to EPA (see 40 CFR 761.180(a)(1)). EPA then collects and compiles PCB data from annual reports. These annual reports show that EPA-approved facilities disposed of more than 14.3 billion kilograms (15.8 million tons) of PCB waste from 1996 to 2019. 

The below graph shows the reported total PCB waste, by type, that was disposed of during the period of 1996 to 2019, in millions of kilograms.

This is a graph of the total amount of polychlorinated biphenyls disposed of from 1996 to 2019 in millions of kilogramsClick to enlarge.

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Cleaning Up PCB Contamination

EPA's PCB Cleanup Program focuses on cleaning up contaminated sites and returning them to beneficial use, where possible. The PCB regulations outline three approaches that can be used for the cleanup and disposal of PCB remediation waste at a contaminated site. The first option allows a company to conduct the cleanup and disposal of remediation waste pursuant to the prescriptive regulatory requirements for certain types of remediation waste (see 40 CFR 761.61(a)). These cleanups are commonly referred to as self-implementing cleanups. Alternatively, a company may instead elect to utilize a performance-based approach that, for example, requires the facility to remove contaminated media above a threshold concentration and send it to an appropriate disposal facility (see 761.61(b)). Under the third option, a facility may conduct the cleanup in a way that differs from the previous two approaches provided. EPA will issue an approval after determining that the proposed cleanup is protective of human health and the environment (see 40 CFR 761.61(c)). An overview of the 40 CFR 761.61(c) application and approval process can be seen below. 

Overview of the Risk-Based Cleanup and Disposal Approval Process

Steps in the PCB Cleanup Approval ProcessOverview of the PCB Cleanup Approval Process

From October 2015 through September 2020, EPA issued 1,131 PCB cleanup and disposal approvals. To facilitate cleanups, EPA has developed approval streamlining tools, such as PCB Facility Approval Streamlining Toolbox (FAST), which is designed to help applicants and regulators reduce delays, improve communication, and increase efficiency in the cleanup and disposal of PCB remediation waste at a site. PCB FAST focuses on establishing a collaborative working relationship between EPA and the Responsible Parties (RPs), and on providing tools for RPs to use to prepare adequate and appropriate self-implementing notifications and risk-based applications. 

EPA is also implementing the Greener Cleanups approach, which considers the environmental footprints of the energy, water and materials used in cleanups. In applying Greener Cleanups, EPA identifies opportunities for reducing the environmental footprint of cleanups, including conserving natural resources; reducing energy, water and materials use; and reducing hazardous emissions while achieving site cleanup goals.

EPA will continue to develop tools that increase the efficiency of issuing approvals, improve communication with local communities and responsible parties, and ensure the proper cleanup of sites. See the Success Stories web page for case studies of specific PCB cleanup sites.

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EPA-Issued Approvals to Facilities that Store or Dispose of PCB Materials

The previous section discussed the types of PCB cleanups that can be self-implementing, as opposed to requiring EPA approval. This same logic also applies to the storage and disposal of PCB waste. Facilities that are engaged in specific types of PCB treatment and storage activities need to obtain approval from EPA prior to conducting those activities. This includes, for example, landfills and incinerators used for the disposal of PCB waste, and certain types of facilities that store PCB waste. Facilities may also request a site-specific risk-based approval from EPA to store or dispose of PCB waste in a manner other than what is prescribed in the regulations. 

Facilities needing a PCB approval must submit an application to EPA that describes, in detail, how they will comply with the applicable regulatory requirements. EPA issues an approval to the facility after it determines that the facility satisfies the regulatory requirements, including the requirement that facility operations will not present an unreasonable risk of injury to human health or the environment. 

The review of operating approval applications for PCB disposal facilities utilizing incineration (or technologies that are deemed to be equivalent to incineration) is typically more resource intensive (relative to PCB storage facilities or landfills, for example) because of the complex nature of those treatment technologies. Operating approvals  are not generally issued to these facilities unless they have proven, via a demonstration test conducted in the presence of EPA officials, that their disposal technology is capable of adequately treating/destroying the PCB waste. These demonstration tests can take a week or longer to complete, and a facility’s demonstration test plan must be approved by EPA prior to the test. After completion of the demonstration test, the facility analyzes and compiles all relevant test results and summarizes the results in a test report that is submitted to EPA for review. EPA will consider the application, test plan and test report when deciding whether to issue an operating approval to the facility.

The purpose of issuing PCB storage/disposal operating approvals is to prevent exposure to PCBs. By issuing these PCB approvals, EPA is helping to ensure the proper disposal of PCB-contaminated media, which limits the exposure of  PCB-contaminated materials for humans and the environment. These approvals also help ensure that PCB materials are managed and stored prior to disposal in a way that minimizes risks and helps prevent PCB releases from spills, fires, explosions and improper management practices in general.  

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The Continued Need to Issue Cleanup and Storage/Disposal Approvals to Facilities

Every year, EPA issues cleanup, storage and disposal approvals to new and existing facilities that can properly manage PCB waste. From October 2015 through September 2020, EPA issued a total of 1,131 of these PCB approvals. Because approvals expire within five to 10 years of issuance, many facilities will come back to EPA asking to renew their approvals. Each time an approval is renewed, new information is considered and the risks are reevaluated. In 2020, there were approximately 40 PCB disposal facilities and 50 commercial storage facilities that were operating pursuant to PCB approvals (Note: These numbers do not include the active PCB cleanups that were being conducted pursuant to approvals in 2020). All approved PCB disposal facilities and commercial PCB storage facilities are listed on EPA’s PCB website.

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Community Engagement

Community engagement helps to ensure that all stakeholders are adequately represented in the PCB approval process. EPA uses national and regional policies, as well as site-specific considerations like community interest, to guide when and to what extent community engagement may be appropriate for each PCB cleanup, storage and disposal approval that the Agency issues. Community engagement activities may take several forms, including public meetings, public comment on draft approvals, and notifications submitted or posted by the facility that provide information on proposed PCB activities. EPA’s PCB program benefits from community involvement because public comments often help inform the administrative, technical and operating procedures in the approvals. 

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