Toxic Fluid Disposal can be Frustrating

April 1, 2004
I was reading a press release on EPA's publication of a new guide for developing a watershed protection plan, and it I reminded of a dilemma I recently encountered.

by James Laughlin

I was reading a press release on EPA's publication of a new guide for developing a watershed protection plan, and it I reminded of a dilemma I recently encountered.

My hobby is working on cars. One day I decided it was time to clean out the toxic wastes that had been collecting in my garage over a period of years. During a brief inventory I found old gasoline drained from a project car, nasty kerosene used to wash parts, half a jug of old anti-freeze, some stale brake fluid, two dead batteries and several containers of used motor oil. Plus, old engine cleaner, paint thinner, paint stripper, paint, turpentine, etc., etc.

Since putting it all in a 55 gallon drum and dumping it into the Arkansas River didn't seem like a viable option, I began to explore my alternatives.

My neighborhood gas station was kind enough to take the oil and batteries off my hands, since both are recyclable. I won't mention what I slipped into the trash with my other household wastes on pick-up day, but they were small items and Tulsa has a trash-to-energy plant. I reasoned it would all get burned away and not be too terrible for the environment.

But I was still left with a nasty collection of toxic fluids. The gasoline was one of my bigger concerns. I had nearly five gallons and some of it was aviation fuel. My friendly gas-station owner had balked at taking the gasoline, since he had to pay a hefty fee to get rid of it. He suggested that pouring it along my fence line would help control weeds and wouldn't cost a dime.

I do have some nasty vines that keep trying to rip apart my privacy fence, so the idea was tempting. But then I thought of the whole issue of watershed management and the importance of environmental stewardship. The phrase "We all live downstream" came to mind.

Tulsa has a semi-annual Household Pollutant Collection Event, where you can get rid of such things, but it was months away at the time. I called the local Metropolitan Environmental Trust, and they said the only place to legally dispose of such items was at their collection event. I then called the Mayor's Action Line for advice, and they referred me to the fire marshal. He suggested a couple of companies who recycle petroleum based fluids, who said "No Way." It was all very frustrating!

So, I did what I often do when faced with an insurmountable problem: I forgot about it. And, magically, months have passed and now the pollution collection event is only days away. Problem solved!

I hate to think about the thousands of shade-tree mechanics around the country faced with the same basic problem – how to dispose of toxic fluids. According to statistics gleaned from the Internet, 350 million gallons of used motor oil is illegally poured into backyards and storm drains each year – ten times the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez tanker accident. And, it only takes one quart of discarded motor oil to contaminate 250,000 gallons of ground water.

I know it would be an expensive proposition, but providing a central collection point – open year round — for toxic fluids generated by households and shade-tree mechanics might help protect local watersheds. Having experienced the frustration of disposing of toxic materials in an environmentally safe manner, I know that many citizens of this fine land would opt to kill weeds or dump it down the convenient black hole found on nearly every street corner.

James Laughlin, Editor

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