On January 20, 2021, Laos published its Decision on the Management, Monitoring, Treatment, and Disposal of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in Transformers No. 5925/MONRE, which entered into force 15 days after its publication. The decision aims to provide guidelines on the management of PCBs used in electric transformers, and to reaffirm Laos’ international commitments under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
The decision was developed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE). Under the local legal framework, the Law on Chemical Management (2016) places the MONRE in charge of monitoring and managing chemical waste in Laos. The Law on Environment Protection (2012) holds liable individuals and legal entities whose activities create poisonous, toxic, or dangerous waste, and directs local business operators producing such waste to store it and prevent any damage according to the relevant standards and regulations. However, the country’s laws and regulations have yet to provide these standards.
On the international stage, Laos is a contracting member of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, having ratified the convention on June 28, 2006. Parties to the convention are required to eliminate the use of PCBs in existing equipment by 2025 and ensure environmentally sound waste management of them by 2028. Laos thus issued the National Implementation Plan under the Stockholm Convention in March 2016 to phase out the country’s use of PCBs. The National Implementation Plan under the Stockholm Convention had observed that Laos had had no specific law or regulation for managing equipment or waste containing PCBs, and identified some electric transformers as a source of waste containing PCBs.
Accordingly, the recent decision also provides that the local administration representing the MONRE in each province must cooperate with the administration representing the Ministry of Energy and Mines, Industry and Commerce, and other local administrations, state enterprises, and the private sector, to conduct a survey and an inventory of PCB waste in electric transformers. Thereafter, a report is to be sent to the Department of Management and Control of Pollution so that the information from the country can be centralized and submitted to the MONRE.
The decision provides a regulatory framework for the following parties to manage PCBs in electric transformers:
Prior treatment and disposal of electric transformers with PCBs and PCBs wastes, individuals and legal entities in possession of these materials must store them in a safe location that prevents any environmental leakage. The site should be closed, with a concrete floor and a drainage system, and it should also be fenced in order to prevent any intrusion, with a signboard expressly prohibiting unauthorized entry. It must be located at least one kilometer away from communities, schools, hospitals, water sources, and sites of food production.
In addition, the decision requires these individuals and legal entities to report to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Department of Industry and Commerce, and Department of Energy and Mines, every six months. The containers in which such electric transformers and waste are kept must bear visible, legible, and durable labels and warnings in Lao and English, so that persons close by or transporting and storing the containers are aware of the toxicity of their contents.
According to the decision, which refers to the Law on Chemical Management (2016), electric transformers containing PCBs, and PCB waste, may be stored for a maximum of 90 days.
The transport of these electric transformers and PCB wastes to treatment and disposal facilities must also guarantee safety to health, life, assets, the environment, and society. A hazardous substance sign must also be affixed to the vehicle: a “danger toxic substance” warning, with a big red skull symbol placed at the front and rear, along with the two sides of the vehicles transporting the electric transformers and PCBs.
If there is an “emergency event” (not further defined) or leakage, the individuals and legal entities identified above are responsible for any initial adverse impact and must find a solution. The village authority, Office of Public Security, along with the district, municipality, and city authorities, must be notified of the incident. In parallel, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment and other administration at the province level should be informed so that they can propose measures to control the incident.
If the “emergency event” involves a chemical leakage from the electric transformers or a leakage of the waste while it is being transported, the transporter must formally report the incident to the local administration. In addition, at the provincial level, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment and the Department of Industry and Commerce must be notified.
Treatment and Disposal
According to the decision, the treatment of PCB refers to decontamination or actions to decrease the level of concentration of PCB chemicals in the oil of electric transformers, such that it does not exceed the minimum tolerated international standard. The disposal process consists of destroying PCB chemicals by using technology or other chemicals. These processes must be conducted by authorized operators.
The facilities conducting these processes must be located sufficiently far from communities and watercourses and their location must be endorsed by the MONRE. Individuals and legal entities treating or disposing of PCB waste must be registered with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and licensed for the relevant operation by the MONRE.
These service providers must also have an expert with experience in the treatment and disposal of PCB chemicals contained in electric transformers, and in the disposal of PCB waste; have a location certified for this type of activity; and have the appropriate equipment, material, vehicles, and technology.
Improper treatment or disposal can result in a temporary suspension or cancellation of the license to operate treatment and disposal services for the following circumstances:
For a first-time offense, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment will submit a proposal to the Department of Industry and Commerce to suspend the infringing operator’s operator license, so that they can correct and bring their operations in line with the law and regulations; the decision does not provide a timeframe for this.
If the operator cannot correct its operations as required, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment will propose to the Department of Industry and Commerce that they cancel the license.
With this decision on PCBs in electric transformers, Laos continues to bring disparate elements of its legal system in line with international agreements and protocols, demonstrating concern not only for accepted global industry standards but also for health, safety, and the environment. While this decision is highly focused in nature—an important update for owners and handlers of PCB-containing electric transformers and the waste derived from them—it can also be taken as further indication of Laos’ intention to be an active and responsible member of the international community.