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Hazardous Wastes

Government Management Strategies

A complex web of federal agencies and legislation oversee and regulate storage, transportation, disposal, recycling, and use of hazardous wastes n the United States. State and local governments also have hazardous waste regulations. The private environmental consulting industry helps government agencies, industrial manufacturers, cities, and businesses of all sizes assess their hazardous waste practices and compliance with the increasingly long list of federal, state and local hazardous waste laws.

There are two main U.S. federal hazardous waste laws: the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund law.

RCRA legislation focuses mainly on disposal of non-hazardous solid waste, and was enacted mainly to deal with unsightly garbage disposal practices. Hazardous waste disposal was a minor issue in the mid-1970s, but enough concern existed that Congress included a section on hazardous wastes in RCRA. Prior to the passage of RCRA, factories and plants typically dumped hazardous wastes in ponds, lagoons, or streams near their facilities. Many smaller waste generators sent their chemical byproducts to outdated municipal landfills that where they leaked into ground and surface water reservoirs.

RCRA mandated creation of a system to track and monitor hazardous wastes from production to disposal, or from “cradle to grave.” Legislators also designed RCRA to regulate existing hazardous waste sites, and to improve hazardous waste management overall. RCRA’s goals have been partly accomplished, but problems have occurred along the way. For example, EPA has been slow to put some of the changes into effect. Some industrial polluters have discovered that it is less expensive to ignore the hazardous waste disposal recommendations, and to use their financial and legal resources to contest claims of environmental damage. Also, some of the legislation expected private industry to build expensive treatment facilities, hire environmental consultants to assess their practices, and to pay clean-up costs. In many cases, companies balked at the cost of self-regulation, and failed to meet the requirements. Community opposition to local siting also delayed or prevented construction of many waste treatment and disposal facilities.

The focus of RCRA has changed over the years. Amendments and enactment of related laws have moved the EPA’s focus from management and disposal practices to waste prevention. There is a growing consensus that it is less expensive, and much less dangerous to prevent a spill, leak, or poisoning than it is to clean one up. Regulations now encourage industries to produce fewer hazardous wastes, to produce wastes that are less hazardous, and to develop alternative methods that do not require dangerous materials.

In contrast to RCRA, which attempts to manage waste production, management, and treatment, CERCLA was designed to clean up sites that are already contaminated. The law established a National Priority List of the United States’ worst hazardous waste sites, and set up a fund, nicknamed Superfund, to augment remediation costs. CERCLA requires that the EPA, which enforces the law, try to find the parties, usually businesses or individuals, responsible for the hazardous waste problems, and make them pay for the cleanups. If responsible parties cannot be found, or if additional money is needed for a proper cleanup, then the governmental Superfund money may be used. The fund was started with $1.6 billion in 1980, and increased to $8.5 billion in 1986. Most of the money in the fund comes from a federal tax on chemical and petroleum companies, the industries responsible for many of the listed sites. Although the amount of money in the Superfund seems huge, cleanup costs are also enormous. The average cost to clean up a Superfund site is $30 million. There were 1,235 sites on the Superfund National Priority List in 2001.

The Superfund project and CERCLA have not been as effective as was initially hoped. Because of the technical difficulty, expense, and legal ramifications of cleanup, fewer than 100 sites have been completely cleaned up and removed from the National Priority List. CERCLA has also been widely criticized because of its liability provisions that require a “potentially responsible party” to pay cleanup costs. This party could, for example, be a business that transported waste materials to a dumpsite years ago, even if the site was not considered a problem at that time, and even if the company did not break any relevant laws. Because businesses often object to the CERCLA liability provisions, these matters frequently end up in court, slowing up the cleanup process.

Many developed nations have environmental regulations similar to RCRA and CERCLA. Some countries, Japan and Denmark for example, rely on partnerships of government and private industry to manage hazardous wastes. In both of these countries, industries receive subsidies or incentives to try new, innovative methods of handling their wastes. Ironically, the nations with the strictest environmental regulations end up exporting large quantities of hazardous wastes for recycling or disposal. Germany, for example, exported more than 500,000 tons of hazardous wastes to other countries each year in the 1980s. Non-governmental environmental groups have campaigned against the export of hazardous wastes by industrialized countries. The United Nation Environment Programme’s (UNEP) 1989 Basel Convention attempts to restrict international transport of hazardous wastes and to encourage less developed nations to resist the economic temptation to take hazardous waste from developed nations. In 2002, 135 nations and the European Union had signed the Basel Convention. The convention, however, does not include the United States, one of the world’s largest hazardous waste producers.

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