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The Baldwin Park Boondoggle

Paul Palmer was born in NYC, went to Stuyvesant HS and Queens College, then to Yale for his PhD in Physical Chemistry.

In the 1970s he migrated to California and started Zero Waste Systems Inc. which introduced the term "Zero Waste."

They took unwanted chemicals from Silicon Valley and resold them for reuse. They took all of the unwanted laboratory chemicals from the Bay Area and sold them for half price. They had the largest inventory in California.

His book about that experience is called Getting To Zero Waste.

Circa 1973, I was the sole proprietor and chief burger delivery guy for a chemical reuse and consulting company I had started years earlier called Zero Waste Systems Inc. Our general purpose was to apply my chemical intelligence to problems involving chemicals that were in the wrong place or doing the wrong job. Mostly we worked on finding ways to make use of so-called "waste" chemicals which were reusable in the right hands and subject to the right analysis. We were the only chemical company in the world with this mission.

I had a partner named Ray who lived in Southern California and I was in Northern California, in Sebastopol. Ray was a superb salesman and his job was to sell, or, in this case, find, good paying jobs to do involving chemicals gone wrong that I could solve. Ray couldn't have told you the difference between hydrogen oxide and uranium oxide but he could bullshit clients until the cows came home — and he found a great, and continuing series of jobs for me.

Usually they involved some company that had a large amount of some chemical that they could no longer use. Maybe they used it in the past but lost a contract. Maybe they mixed several chemicals together in making a desirable product and this was left over. It didn't matter. I would isolate the main component and the small components and look for another chemical user that bought the main component but mixed it in use with the other components, or at least didn't care if it was mixed with those particular contaminants. Then we took the mix from the first guy and sold it to the second guy. We were doing well. There were few problems that couldn't be solved by the application of chemical intelligence and industrial savvy.

This story involves a purchase, by some bright-eyed but dull-witted entrepreneur whom I never met, who bought from the government a large collection of fuel anodes. I don't know what they were made for, originally used for, or even why they were called fuel anodes but that was never an issue. The purchaser found that he had a tiger by the tail and dumped the lot in a desert near Baldwin Park, a city in Southern California. The load of garbage was reported to the fire department who knew how to solve such problems. Take most of it off to a hazardous waste dump and cover the remainder with sand. So they sent in the clowns — no, the bulldozers — to make short work of the job but this wasn't like other jobs they had done.

These fuel anodes consisted of circuit boards with lots of copper wires and some silver and mercury compounds. They were packed cheek-by-jowl in steel cases. The steel cases were packed in wooden crates. The dirty little secret that only became known in the hardest way, was that the fuel anodes were pyrophoric. If a steel case were opened up, in dry air, they spontaneously burst into flame, scaring the bejeesus out of the unfortunate holding it.

As the bulldozers tore into the pile, expecting to load it onto trucks, the boxes were breached and the fuel anodes started fires all over the site, spreading fumes of mercury and copper and burning wooden boxes. Eventually, the bulldozer operators put two and two together and heaped tons of sand on the whole pile, à la Chernobyl, deciding it would be someone else's problem from there on. Naturally a problem like this of an unowned pile of very hazardous materials would be designated a Superfund site and the EPA took charge.

The EPA appears to have had no industrial scientists that it could rely on so they naturally went to the repository of all intelligence in matters of hazardous waste, Chemical Waste Management (CWM), the spin-off from the largest garbage company in the world, Waste Management. No problem! CWM knew how to solve problems like this. First, they had a lab full of high school graduates in science, who had taken a few Chemistry courses. Surely these braintrusts could solve something so simple. So CWM made a proposal to the EPA.

For a mere seven million dollars, they would load up the whole mess into a giant vat of concentrated nitric acid. The acid would dissolve the wood into fibers, dissolve the steel into ferric nitrate, dissolve the mercury into mercuric nitrate and dissolve the copper into copper nitrate, all in a highly acidic stew. Then they would dump in enough sodium hydroxide to convert all of the metallic salts into hydroxides.

Then, in the desert of Arizona they had a preferred "waste management" company who had purchased a giant piece of desert for just such eventualities. This company would spread the now alkaline stew on the desert to dry! The metallic hydroxides and the excess sodium nitrate and sodium hydroxide would join the metals in blowing all over Kingdom Come as the mess dried into crystalline chunks and powder. Then they would vacuum up all the solids they could find and put them into a hole in the ground to remain until the Pacific Plate reached over California to push the waste dump back into the earth's mantle where it could do no harm. And all of this high tech management could be had for only seven million dollars. What a bargain!

Here's where my partner Ray entered the mix. Ray had been cozying up to a medium exec in CWM for just such a chance. The EPA would not even talk to Ray and me because we were not a major corporation and we had not gone through a difficult and expensive certification with them to show them that we could solve Superfund-sized problems.






But if we paid a bribe to Arthur, let's just call him Arthur so we don't have to call him Joe, we could be brought into the game. The size of the bribe? One-third of our billing to the EPA. One third for Ray, one for me and one for Arthur, all paid by the unsuspecting taxpayers of California.

Arthur knew that his company didn't have a clue. The nitric acid escapade was about the stupidest trick that a high school graduate could come up with — expensive, dangerous and an environmental disaster in so many ways. Like kicking a concrete block really hard to move it off your road. Could Palmer and Chemsearch Corp. come to the rescue? Arthur had nothing to lose. And the EPA was making no decisions just yet.

I got a complete description of the problem without ever visiting the site. To me, the key was the copper in the mix. That was valuable and there was quite a bit of it. But what to do with the steel, wood, sand, silver and mercury. Aha! A copper smelter seemed about the right actor. Melt it all down to get the copper. But where could I find a copper smelter?

Fortunately I had industrial directories of every kind of business that I accumulated for problems like this. In one such directory, I found a smelter in Flin Flon Manitoba, Canada that seemed made in heaven for us. I asked for a representative sample of one rail car to be shipped to Flin Flon (don't you love that name? So close to Flim Flam.)

The smelter operator tested it out and informed me that he had found this: The copper would melt, the steel boxes would melt, the wood would burn adding to the fuel for the smelter and most amazing of all, the sand would melt into the glassy slag that was always needed to cover molten metals to exclude air. The silver and mercury would melt into the copper, joining the rest of the silver and mercury in all copper ores, for later extraction. For the whole lot of about fifty railcars, they would charge me fifty thousand dollars and I could charge the EPA anything up to seven million dollars (or more).

Here is where I made arguably the worst decision of my entire life. I could have quoted any price at all to the EPA and they would have paid it gladly. But Ray got cold feet. He thought there should be some proportionality between our costs and our charge. No consultant would think that way. I argued, but I lost heart at his repeated fears.

There is a story about consulting that makes the rounds. A manufacturer is facing a terrible problem. His production line is shut down. He is losing millions of dollars a week from aborted production. In a paroxysm of desperation he hires a consultant who claims to understand this kind of problem. The consultant tours around the plant, touches nothing, sees everything, goes into his office and thinks for a half hour. He comes out and says to the owner - "come with me". Together they go to a machine, he points to a screw and he says: "turn that screw a quarter turn to the right!" All of a sudden, the equipment starts up, the production resumes and the problem is apparently solved. The owner is ecstatic. "How much do I owe you?" he asks. "A million dollars comes the reply." "What? A million dollars for turning a screw?" The consultant explains. "For turning the screw, you owe me fifty cents. But for knowing which screw to turn, a million dollars."

Obviously, there is no fixed price for knowing how to solve a mammoth problem. So I charged the EPA a half million dollars. I was sent a check for the amount forthwith. I could have charged seven million I assume.

To make a long story short, all this took place and the problem was easily solved with no particular damage to the environment. In my mind, I was a hero, but the EPA had never heard my name. All they knew was that CWM had arrived at a great solution.

Three years later, a final report came out on the Baldwin Park Superfund, which I ordered from the EPA. With great anticipation, I followed the story, waiting for the place where Paul Palmer would leap from the wings and dramatically solve the problem. But to no avail. Instead I read that "at some point, it was decided to send the whole mixture to Flin Flon for smelting." The environmental idea of my company's mission, the history of finding chemically intelligent ways to handle chemical excesses, this became merely a passive voice, where someone unspecified, in a certified, giant corporation, had come up with a better idea and it had been applied.

In succeeding years, I approached the EPA for work, and explained what I had done and how I had saved them 6.5 million dollars. No soap. If I couldn't put up a ten million dollar bond, then don't call us, we'll call you. I never again got any work from the EPA. CWM was called in for every Superfund site.

~ Paul Palmer










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