Understanding the legal responsibilities of proper pole disposal

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Disposing of old utility poles can be a tricky matter. If they are treated with CCA, Creosote or Penta, you can’t just throw them out, or pile them up on the side of the road, or worse, set them on fire. When it comes to disposing of treated utility poles, it’s important to know what type of chemical treatment was applied. Although federal law governing the disposal of poles classifies the material as “non-hazardous waste,” there are strict laws in place at the state level that vary considerably based upon treatment type. Adhering to these laws and understanding the appropriate disposal methods available is more critical than ever as landfill space is in short supply and diminishing every day.

The rule of thumb for utility pole disposal: it varies How one disposes of old utility poles is dependent upon the type of treatment a specific pole has received. For example, it is illegal to incinerate poles treated with CCA (chromated copper arsenic), as the emission of this material is toxic and creates dangerous vapor when burned. On the other hand, both creosote and penta-treated poles can be incinerated in some states, provided that certified facilities are used and equipped with proper scrubbers to remove possible air contamination.

Fast facts about treated wood in the U.S.

– The three major chemical wood preservatives are: pentachlorophenol (penta), creosote, and CCA
– There are approximately 160 million chemically treated wood poles in service today in the U.S.
– 3%, or nearly 5 million, of the these poles are replaced annually
– These replaced poles represent more than 4 million tons of waste each year
– The vast majority of old poles taken out of service were produced 30-40 years ago and contain either creosote or penta
– 43% of all new poles are treated with penta; 42% are treated with CCA; and 13% are treated with creosote

Recycling utility poles

In general, the re-using or recycling of utility poles, while legal in many states, does carry certain legal risks and a potential for health problems because of a general lack of consumer education about the chemicals used to treat the wood. The biggest concerns, of course, are that 1) users are burning treated poles—particularly CCA treated material, or 2) they are using inappropriate storage methods, either near water or in enclosed spaces. Each of these scenarios is a potential hazard and carries strict legal penalties.

The landfill option

The practice of “landfilling” old poles is still the most widely used method, however it too has regulations based on material type. In general, most states will accept treated wood into landfills, as long as they stick to certain best practices. For instance, certain chemical treatments, like CCA, must go into lined facilities, as opposed to unlined facilities.

Choose wisely

Looking ahead, as more poles containing CCA treatment are removed from service—and with landfill space becoming scarcer—it will be increasingly important to identify environmentally friendly and cost-effective methods to dispose of old poles. It is critical to educate your company on the disposal options available given, 1) the state in which you operate, and 2) the types of treated poles you will be disposing of. In creating a responsible disposal program, it’s critical to know exactly what the legal hurdles are, and how they come into play with regard to your specific geographic location. One thing to remember, there are always options. And educating yourself to the possibilities thus afforded can save you headaches, legal turmoil, and if done right, may even save you some money.