Feature Story

Protecting one community at a time – the removal of harmful PCBs in Mexico

April 20, 2017

PCB oils are removed from equipment and placed into barrels before being transported to hazardous waste disposal facilities. PCBs contribute to a variety of negative health effects, including skin and liver problems. A GEF-funded, UNDP-implemented project in Mexico is helping local communities to remove toxic equipment containing PCBs and establishing environmentally sound management systems for equipment that remains in use. So far, about 10% of all PCBs in Mexico have been eliminated.
PCB oils are removed from equipment and placed into barrels before being transported to hazardous waste disposal facilities. PCBs contribute to a variety of negative health effects, including skin and liver problems. A GEF-funded, UNDP-implemented project in Mexico is helping local communities to remove toxic equipment containing PCBs and establishing environmentally sound management systems for equipment that remains in use. So far, about 10% of all PCBs in Mexico have been eliminated.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were among the original so-called “dirty dozen” chemicals that are controlled by the Stockholm Convention, an international environmental treaty that aims to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  While the production of PCB has long been stopped, it continues to be used in power generation and transmission systems even up to today. The reason for this is that much of the equipment that contains PCBs is still operational, and it would be too costly for many utilities to do a one-off replacement of all their PCB-containing equipment, including transformers and capacitors. The challenge is therefore how to safely operate this equipment without contaminating equipment that is PCB-free, and how to deal with that equipment and any PCB it contains once its useful life comes to an end.

To deal with this problem, the GEF funds projects to support the safe removal and treatment of equipment that is no longer in use, and supports the establishment of environmentally sound management (ESM) systems for equipment that is still in use.  These ESM systems help to develop an inventory of PCB-containing equipment and set up specialized maintenance procedures to service the equipment until the end of its life.  The ESM establishes interim storage of the equipment once it comes out of service and allows for short-term storage until there are sufficient quantities to be disposed of.

In some cases, while doing the inventories, it is determined that the equipment is operated in locations where, if leakage occurred, significant risk would be posed to people and the environment.  In Mexico, at a water pumping station in Cuautitlán-Izcalli, a few hours’ drive north of Mexico City, a large transformer containing PCB was found during an inventory that took place as part of a GEF-funded, UNDP-implemented project.  Given its location at a water pumping station, instead of trying to manage the transformer in place, the Government of Mexico opted to remove the PCB-containing oil and retrofit the transformer with PCB-free oil.

Guillermo Román, the national project coordinator, explains, “PCB oils are removed and sent off to a hazardous waste disposal facility in France, while the equipment is taken to a decontamination facility in Mexico, where it gets cleaned well enough so that the remaining metal scrap can be recycled.” Not all materials can be decontaminated in Mexico, so those that cannot are also sent to the decontamination facility in France.

Destruction of equipment can be a costly endeavor in particular for small- and medium-sized companies, which is why the project encourages companies to “pool” their waste. In this way, companies can bring in as little as one piece of equipment and have it disposed of at a reasonable price in an environmentally sound and safe manner.

The project also surveyed and inspected workshops that conduct repair and maintenance of electrical equipment. As one of the main findings, the national inventory discovered that these workshops, due to poor practices, were the main cause of contamination with PCBs of the new and clean equipment, while exposing their personnel to high levels of PCBs in the process. In certain cases, maintenance workers may have even been exposing their family members by taking PCB-contaminated work clothes home.

PCB oils are often found in outdated power generation and transmission equipment, such as the transformer seen here. While some old equipment can be retrofitted to use PCB-free oil, other equipment must be decontaminated and destroyed.

Thanks to the project, which has supported the adoption of a new standard, it is now compulsory to dispose of equipment containing PCB in a safe manner. This new standard is also helping to better regulate and monitor electrical maintenance shops.

To date, the project has successfully trained policy makers, PCB owners, workshops and maintenance staff on how to manage and dispose of PCBs, without causing further pollution or health hazards.

“As a result of the project, the elimination of about 10 percent of the total amount of PCBs in Mexico has been achieved,” says Guillermo Román,

The Parties to the Stockholm Convention are working towards a 2025 deadline to eliminate the use of PCB.  The GEF has supported this process through projects like the one in Mexico, however as the deadline approaches Governments will need to make the difficult and costly choice of entirely replacing their PCB containing equipment now, rather than wait for 2025.

 

This story is based on an article that first appeared in GEF's 'The Greenline' magazine.


The GEF is a catalyst for both governments and the private sector to help eliminate or reduce harmful chemicals and waste. The GEF is a financial mechanism to implement both the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and The Minamata Convention on Mercury. It also plays an important, complementary role in achieving theMontreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

The GEF has two key strategic objectives around chemicals and waste:

- Develop the enabling conditions, tools and environment for the sound management of harmful chemicals and wastes.
Reduce the prevalence of harmful chemicals and waste, and support the implementation of clean alternative technologies/substances.

A progress report on activities related to the Stockholm Convention will be presented at the upcoming Meetings of the COPs to the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions, that will take place in Geneva, Switzerland, from April 24 - May 5.