Toxic Waste - Oil


Collision Forensics, Accident Reconstruction, Causation Analysis


The 2001 TRI (Toxic Release Inventory) for SIC code 29, Petroleum and Petroleum Refining, lists total waste discharge of the 650 chemicals tracked of 992,684,612 pounds (1). This total is staggering, does not include all chemicals which might be considered toxic waste, and is for only one industry classification.

Waste oil is not one of the 650 chemicals tracked, probably because it is not a manufacturing product or by-product. Waste oil is considered to be a feed stock, illegal dumping product, or toxic waste depending on where it is in the production process, how it is handled, and what contaminants may be found in it.

The magnitude of the waste oil problem is extremely difficult to define due to lack of data and varying definitions. Whether waste oil disposal is a crime depends on how it is disposed of and who does it. At present, criminal statistics related to waste oil disposal are primarily episodic, anecdotal, and inferential.

What Is Waste Oil?

In the early twentieth century, re-refining waste, or used, oil was often no more complicated then straining old oil through a cowboy hat to remove solids (2). A more diligent process involved first allowing water to settle out of the used oil mixture, then heating to remove volatile contaminants. This was called "reclaiming". In the 1950s, recycled oil developed a bad reputation because of the acid clay through which much old oil was filtered (3). The resulting mixture contained micro-abrasives that wore out engines prematurely. Today, used oil is a feedstock in the oil refining process because waste oil is chemically identical to new oil and the refining process is applicable to both used and virgin oil stocks. Tests have shown re-refined oil made from waste oil meets industry standards for lubricants, including the standards of automobile manufacturers, the Society of Automotive Engineers, the American Petroleum Institute, and the American Society for Testing Materials.

In the 1960s, 150 companies produced 300 million gallons of

re-refined oils each year. Used oil had a significant price advantage

over virgin oil because of the excise tax on new oil. That advantage disappeared when the excise tax was eliminated. Costs also increased as additives, up to 25% of the volume of oil, made re-refining more difficult. Disposal and handling requirements added additional costs.

Over 2 billion gallons of used oil are generated annually. Of the 100 million gallons re-refined by refiners each year, about two thirds becomes base oil, 15 percent is distilled to become fuels, 10 percent is used as asphalt binder, and 10 percent is water. Re-refined base oil is sold to manufacturers that mix the oil

with additives and sell to the industrial and automotive market. Some waste oil is burned to help run the re-refinery process, while some may be sold on the market for other purposes. The asphalt flux is sold to roofing manufacturers, road asphalt suppliers, or as industrial fuel.

Note that today only a third as much re-refined oil is produced as in the 1960s.

So, What's the Problem?

It is not known how much waste oil is illegally dumped, nationally or internationally, but estimates suggest the amount is very large. Some waste oil is re-refined, some is burned as fuel or for heat, and some is reclassified as toxic waste because of contaminants and other toxic compounds mixed with waste oil (4). Much is unaccounted for.

For an idea of the scope of the problem, in 1996 the state of California produced 118 million gallons of used oil, but recycled only about 74 million gallons; 40 million gallons, about 34%, were unaccounted for and may have been thrown out (5). It is unknown, for example, how much of this oil found its way into water supplies. One gallon of waste oil can spoil the taste of up to 250,000 gallons of drinking water (6). MTBE, a petroleum by product that might now be defined as a type of petroleum waste, is responsible for closing wells across California and for huge remediation costs and damage awards.

The Economics of Waste Oil Keep Changing

Although re-refined oil is chemically identical to new oil and meets industry standards, its market has fluctuated in the United States. If re-refined oil sells for less than new oil, customers believe it's inferior. If it sells for more, customers will buy new oil (7). Even though President Clinton, by a 1993 executive order, required federal agencies to use lubricating oil containing 25% re-refined oil, and many state and local governments have done likewise, re-refined oil is a small and declining fraction of lubricants used in the United States.

The volume of recycled oil is such that it exceeds demand for re-refined oil. One use of recycled oil, ships boiler fuel, has all but disappeared due partly to more stringent marine engine warranty requirements. What was once used as bunker fuel now competes with other recycled product.

Costs escalate when contaminants such as solvents or parts cleaner are mixed with waste oil. Waste oil then becomes a hazardous waste that not only requires special and expensive laboratory analysis, but also special handling, transportation, and permits. In addition, it costs more to re-refine because of foreign substances.

In short, when recycling becomes inconvenient or the costs of re-refining exceed market value, waste oil will be disposed of in other, unsavory manners.

Illegal Waste Oil Disposal in America

About 1.6 billion gallons of waste oil might be disposed of improperly in the United States each year. Most of this improper disposal goes undetected. It is dumped in waterways, sewer systems, down mine shafts, and in remote locations. Much is probably dumped in very small quantities by shade tree mechanics that don't want to take used oil to a disposal site. The true magnitude of the problem is unknown. But, it is probable that only the edges of the waste pond are being detected.

Waste oil is not considered hazardous waste until it is contaminated by toxic substances. It does not become a pollutant until it is disposed of improperly. In either case, comprehensive estimates of toxic waste oil generation and pollution caused by improper waste oil disposal are unavailable.

Illegal disposal of hazardous waste costs about 5% of the cost of proper disposal (8). And, it is estimated that less than 20% of toxic waste is disposed of properly. Individuals dispose of waste oil improperly to avoid costs and criminals do so for profit. Organized crime, through its long term association with waste hauling, is a large presence in the illegal disposal of hazardous waste. Dump sites are often remote and are not monitored, making illegal disposal detection difficult.

Illegal dumping of toxic waste is usually discovered when telltale signs are observed or when physical effects appear in the environment or people. Dumping of bilge water from ships is often observed as a weak oil slick. Recently, an oil slick off the Farallon Islands near San Francisco was detected by California Fish and Game officials using satellite images (9). Investigation of Russell Mahler's activities were begun when the US Coast Guard detected a small oil slick in a small creek in New York (10). Mahler's illegal dumping activities may have continued for ten years or longer prior to detection of the first suggestive oil slick.

Illegal Foreign Waste Oil Disposal

The matter of improper toxic waste disposal is an international problem. Third world countries, communist countries, and the former Soviet Union are notorious for improper waste disposal. Large parts of the former Soviet Navy are rusting and disintegrating in shipyards and waterways, spilling toxic wastes, including nuclear wastes. An entire lake in Russia is so radioactive, it may never be usable again (never being defined as a very long time). Many countries do not give even cursory attention to waste disposal.

What portion of this problem is due to improper disposal of waste oil is unknown. If only about 20% of waste oil is re-cycled in the United States, the percentage in most of the rest of the world can't be higher. The exception is European countries that recycle aggressively. Up to 60% of used oil is recycled in Germany.

One illustration of the international nature of the toxic waste problem is the burning of waste oil as fuel in England (11). It is interesting to note that this activity is sanctioned in England because waste oil is not regulated when it is reclassified as fuel. Burning of waste oil as fuel is permitted in England, but in no other EU country. Exhaust plumes from English furnaces can migrate up to fifty miles in calm winds, but waft eastward and impinge on the European continent in strong winter winds. Whereas total emissions from US incinerators amounted to 1,636 kg per year in 1997, just one incinerator in the Lewisham, England, area emitted 20,342 kg of particulate matter and volatile organic chemicals.

If PCBs are part of the burned mix, one combustion product is dioxin, a known carcinogen. Exhaust plumes often also contain heavy metals such as nickel, vanadium, and titanium. It remains to be seen what will happen to this activity as England harmonizes waste disposal standards with the rest of the EU. At present, England seems not particularly interested in addressing the problem as made clear in the following quote: "At a Health and Safety Executive conference in London, in January 1998, a senior Department of Health official declared that premature deaths caused by air pollution in the UK were a price worth paying for keeping production costs down and making Britain competitive in the waste market." If this is official policy, how hard are British authorities investigating illegal waste oil disposal?

Another example is that of the Italian Mafia. One hundred sixty nine or so criminal gangs and clans in Italy are actively engaged in the collection, transportation and illegal disposal of hazardous wastes, presumably also waste oil (12). Hazardous waste is collected at attractive rates by these gangs, transported south, and disposed in national parks and abandoned quarries. Corrupt civil servants doctor paperwork to hide the identity of the waste so it can move unhindered.

It is estimated that about twelve million tons of industrial waste disappear in Italy each year (13). The attraction is price: an average of 50 cents a pound for proper disposal and as little as 5 cents a pound bid by nefarious operators engaged in illegal disposal. Disposal of toxic waste takes place as noted above as well as by other creative means such as loading it aboard ships and sinking the ships.

The Italian Mafia and other gangs also contract with foreign nationals to move EU waste through Italy to such third world countries as Somalia (14). Such activity has been made possible by removal of border controls as a result of EU integration. Much of this activity is associated with money laundering - moving and hiding the illegal proceeds of drug activity, transportation of exotic animals, organs and blood, and arms. Not only Italian, but US mafia is involved in these activities. And, there are signs of cooperation between gangs worldwide in the illegal disposal of hazardous wastes.


It is to be expected that illegal activities are purposefully hidden from public view. Thus, it is exceedingly difficult to determine the scope of illegal waste disposal, let alone the sub-category of illegal waste oil disposal. The problem is exceptionally large and multi-faceted.

Defining the boundaries of the problem of illegal dumping is difficult because of its covert nature, but it is made more difficult by official ignorance, indifference, or assistance. Hazardous waste can be officially re-classified or its disposal in unorthodox ways condoned. Bribery can change documents to hide the true nature of a hazardous shipment. Disposal often will be accomplished in remote locations or countries foreign to the waste's origin.

Defining the problem is just a start. The problem seems to be so large and diffuse that combating it must be an international affair. It is also likely to cost tremendous quantities of cash, not only to combat and prosecute the crime, but to absorb the additional costs of proper disposal. By some estimates, proper disposal alone would increase disposal costs by at least an order of magnitude. This possibility is staggering and may be beyond the abilities of some industries and governments to handle.

1. RTK Network (2002). Industry Report. Retrieved August 30, 2004 from*+Petroleum+Refining+and+Related+Industries&STATE=ALL+%28Entire+U.S.%29&REPORTING_YEAR=2002&DETAIL=S+Summary+%28list+of+hits%29&DBTYPE=C&SORTP=D+Default+order&DATYPE=T+Text&PRIMALL=P+Primary+Only&EMAIL=&ESUBJ=

2. Arner, R. (1994). Opportunities for recycled oil products. Biocycle, 35(6), 68. Retrieved from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 39825).

3. Wilhelm, S. (1995). Recycled engine oil proves to be a tough sell. Journal Of Business, (B) 10(21), 6. Retrieved August 29, 2004, from Business Dateline database. (Document ID: 8695037).

4. Hyde, C. (1988). Waste-oil disposal. Business Digest Of Southern Maine, (1) 11(5), 30. Retrieved from Business Dateline database. (Document ID: 6240182). Retrieved August 27, 2004 from

5. Jimenez, T. (1996). Epa lauds T.O.'s recycling efforts with re-refined oil. Daily

News, p. TO.1. Retrieved from Business Dateline database. (Document ID: 18913232). Retrieved August 27, 2004, from

6. Lange, L. (1991). Oil, oil everywhere, and not enough recycled. Seattle Post - Intelligencer, p. B1. Retrieved from Business Dateline database. (Document ID: 54427519). Retrieved August 27, 2004, from

7. Wilhelm, S. (1995). Recycled engine oil proves to be a tough sell. Journal Of Business, (B) 10(21), 6. Retrieved from Business Dateline database. (Document ID: 8695037). Retrieved August 27, 2004, from

8. Friedrichs, D. O. (2004). Trusted criminals: White collar crime in contemporary society. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

9. Deep Sea Mysteries. History Channel. August 30, 2004.

10. Schichor, D., Gaines, L. & Ball, R. (2002). Readings in white-collar crime. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

11. Bunyard, P. (2000). Blowin' in the wind. The Ecologist, 30(5), 68-69. Retrieved , from Research Library database. (Document ID: 62725868). Retrieved August 27, 2004, from

12. Popham, P. (2004). Mafia moves into the polluting business. The Independent On Sunday, p. 19. Retrieved August 31, 2004, from ProQuest Newsstand database. (Document ID:615511421)

13. Edmondson, G. & Carlisle, K. (2003). Italy and the eco-mafia: billions are made by illegally dumping toxic waste - with little public outcry. Business Week, (3817), 46-50. Retrieved August 31, 2004, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 279799901).

14. James, B. (1992). Is the EC opening its doors to crime. International Herald Tribune, p. 1. Retrieved August 31, 2004, from ProQuest Newsstand database. (Document ID: 119140769).

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