New era for hazardous waste

How to dispose of hazardous waste is bursting forth as a key environmental issue of the '80s. You can do something about it, as suggested by the cover story in this week's regional pullout sections of the Monitor.

With air and surface water being cleansed of foul discharges, the ground has become the last sink for disposing of pollutants. After a century of absorbing wastes that industry, research institutions, hospitals, and government have dumped on and in it, the soil, like a soaking sponge, is signaling that it's had enough. Drinking water in many parts of the nation is threatened with contamination. Hardly a day goes by, government officials report, that another 1,00 drums of obnoxious materials are not found close to some water supply. No one knows how many more Love Canals are out there waiting to happen, endangering life, health, and the environment.

But now a new era seems about to begin. The section of RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) which Congress passed in 1976 to deal with this long ignored and rapidly mushrooming problem is going into operation. Some regulations already have been issued. Others, effective in October, are due out this month.

But what good will it do to track every ton of hazardous waste from point of generation to final disposal, to set standards for designing and operating environmentally sound disposal facilities and landfills, and to arrange to issue permits for them, if citizens block efforts to locate such facilities in their vicinity? Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials see such resistance as a major hurdle to the success of the hazardous waste program. Two communities targeted as possible sites have already set a precedent in Massachusetts by obtaining legislative exclusion from having waste facilities located within their borders.

RCRA casts the federal government in the role of regulator, assigning implementation of the law to the states. It gives EPA no power to site hazardous waste facilities. A major issue now under dicussion in some states is whether a state siting board should be set up and given power to override local opposition to locating such facilities. There are very few licensed facilities in the nation. "We need new facilities," says one EPA spokesman. "Developing them is going to be a key to making sense ouf this whole program."

The alternative to legal disposal is illegal disposal. "Midnight dumpers" are the villains of this piece, underpricing legitimate transporters of waste, then pouring their toxic cargoes down sewers, dumping them in forests, on farm land, open fields, and roadsides with no regard for the general welfare.

At this early stage, there is little public understanding of possible solutions to this complex issue. When a hazardous waste facility is proposed, public perception of it generally is not of a well-designed and monitored site, as RCRA requires, but of the kind of dangerous, oozing dumps that have been making headlines. The very mention of a hazardous waste facility conjures up visions of Three Mile Island incidents (though, of course, hazardous waste does not include nuclear waste).

But lumped under hazardous wastes are many that are no more dangerous than table salt, and not as dangerous as gasoline, a most volatile fluid which people manage to live with daily. EPA defines a hazardous waste as one that may contribute to illness or death "when improperlym managed."

How safe are environmentally acceptable hazardous waste disposal facilities? Though not totally risk free, there are numerous technologies for disposing of the wastes with a high degree of safety: incineration on land or sea, chemical neutralization, tightly contained storage, waste exchange (in which one industry's waste becomes another's raw material).

If industrial firms are required to stop improper dumping of hazardous wastes , most of which is done on their own property, it stands to reason that proper disposal facilities will have to be made available. Well-managed and monitored facilities present far less danger to communities than the current virtually uncontrolled dumping. And, although the new facilities will increase the cost of waste disposal, the price tag will be peanuts compared to the staggering cost of cleaning up unmanaged dumps of the past, a large chunk of which the taxpayer has to pay.

Hazardous waste will not go away. It must be intelligently managed. We the consumers are we the polluters. Our demand for cars, fuel, pesticides, leather goods, etc, produces these offensive leftovers.

The previously mentioned article in this week's regional pullout sections tells how citizens in one community have taken action to protect their town from chemical contamination. That's one step. As states set up their hazardous waste programs, which are required to be "as stringent as" EPA regulations, citizens have an opportunity to participate in the process. We would hope they will work toward a solution to the problem and not become part of it by blocking efforts to locate proper disposal facilities where they can be appropriately and harmlessly sited.

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