A growing hazard

A few floors up in Portland State’s Science Building 2, the hazardous waste disposal facility is brimming to capacity.

“As the university has grown, the amount of waste has really grown, and we are running up against a wall,” environmental safety consultant Chuck Cooper said. The popularity of certain relatively new fields such as nanotechnology have contributed to the increase in volume.

The chemicals being used in these fields can be particularly nasty to process. “Hydrochloric acid is used in the processing of silicone and can be extremely toxic. Just a small amount on the skin can cause death,” said Ruben Torres, hazardous materials manager.

Other potentially life-threatening substances frequently show up for disposal. Picric acid, for example, is meant to be kept in a water solution but will dry out over time if neglected, becoming explosive. “It must’ve gotten pushed to the back of the shelf and forgotten about, and then a new professor comes in and doesn’t even know it’s there,” Cooper said. The bottle they recently received was dated 1994.

From rusted cans of ether to hacked up carcasses of sea mammals, the two full-time staff members have their hands full. A group of part-timers, including many students, help to get the job done. A work order is generated online, letting the team know what needs disposing and where.

Requests come from all over campus, to remove items like batteries, light ballasts and aerosol cans.

The building itself does not meet safety standards to begin with, much less so for all of Portland State’s toxic garbage. Originally built in 1961-62, the second floor space currently used for labs, classrooms and offices has no sprinkler system for its hallways and could not meet today’s standards for fire containment. If the space was zoned under current laws, it could only be zoned for offices.

A solution to these problems is in the works but could be years away. “It is recognized that this building is not code compliant, and it would cost more to bring it up to code than it would to build a new building,” Cooper said. “There is a proposal at the board to build a new science facility on the [north] side of the building and convert the other side to office space and things like that.”

“Each room or hallway should be able to hold a fire for 1-2 hours,” Cooper said during a recent tour of the facility. Standards for new structures used for these purposes require internal firewalls, which Science Building 2 does not have.

These days, any waste facility processing flammables or combustibles must be located on the ground floor for easy access by fire crews, should that be necessary. A tiny building was built separately in the early ’60s as part of the original construction to house any toxic materials remotely. Back then the need for such a space was quite small. Resembling a metal shed, today it is almost unnoticeable, adjacent to Science 2 on the west side. A smart safety feature can still be seen: the roof was designed to open like a hinge should an explosion occur. It has since been decommissioned.

Another possible plan is to convert the West Heating Plant to a facility that would also house the art department’s kiln, grouping those potentially dangerous activities under the same roof. That space is now used as a sort of annex for less hazardous materials and those waiting to be recycled. Also residing there are two giant natural-gas-fueled furnaces, which provide heat to much of campus. Those would be decommissioned.

With plans on the drawing board, it is clear that a new hazardous waste facility is on the way. In the meantime, the existing one will have to do.