When you look up at a beautifully straight utility pole, you may not realize it was once the center of one of the best of the best trees. Before being selected, telephone poles must past strict quality control requirements and only superior trees pass muster. Nevertheless, like everything in life, all poles are eventually laid to rest, and when that day comes, the United States Environmental Protection Agency wants you to do it in a particular way.
Wood Pole Treatment
Utility poles steadfastly support our electric and communication wires for an average of 75 years after treated with life-extending wood preservatives. These preservatives, however, known as creosote, pentachlorophenol (PCP or Penta) and inorganic copper chromated arsenical compounds (CCA), are subject to EPA regulations; since wooden utility poles use them, they must be disposed of in a particular manner. The three most common utility pole disposal methods include landfills, incineration and recycling.
According to the EPA, even though it regulates creosote, PCP and CCA, preservative-treated wood is not hazardous waste if it is disposed of in its originally intended state. This means that as long as the utility pole remains an intact pole, disposing of the pole by throwing it into a landfill does not violate EPA requirements. Be aware that many states and local governments do not agree, however, because the chemicals are known to leach into soil. Therefore, many maintain stricter guidelines. For example, while the EPA states that creosote treated wood is appropriately disposed of by ordinary trash collection or burial, San Joaquin County in California does not allow the disposing of creosote treated telephone poles anywhere other than special landfills designed for hazardous materials.
Incinerating or Mulching
The EPA agrees, however, that altering preservative-treated wood, for example, by burning or chopping it up, releases toxins from the preservatives into the environment. Therefore, disposing utility poles by incineration or mulching must be done in an approved facility capable of appropriately containing the chemicals, according to the EPA, as well as state and local laws.
Some communities allow the recycling of utility poles. In those locations, reclaimed poles are often transformed into landscaping timbers, fencing materials, structural supports and guardrail posts.
- North American Wood Pole Council: Frequently Asked Questions
- Environmental Literacy Council: Wood Utility Pole Life Cycle
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) - Wood Mulch Derived From Waste Lumber Preserved With Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA)
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Preliminary Risk Assessment for Creosote
- County of San Joaquin: Railroad Ties, Treated Posts and Lumber - Proper Disposal Locations
- Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality Guidance: Treated Wood Disposal Procedures
- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: Creosote
An attorney for more than 20 years, Cara O'Neill currently practices in the areas of civil litigation, family law and bankruptcy. She also served as an Administrative Law Judge and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in the areas of employment law, business law and criminal law for a well-known university. Attending the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, she graduated a National member of the Order of the Barristers - an honor society recognizing excellence in courtroom advocacy. She is currently licensed in the state of California.