The Environmental Protection Agency's long-awaited rules governing the disposal of hazardous industrial wastes hold out the promise of welcome, if belated, public protection from the kind of irresponsible and dangerous damping that occurred at New York's Love Canal and at hundreds of other heretofore unregulated disposal sites across the US. Issued two years behind schedule, the EPA regulations are complex and will be costly to implement. But the comprehensive controls on the production, transportation, and disposal of toxic wastes are urgently needed and certainly worth the estimated $1 billion a year they will cost industry to implement and the higher chemical prices that will be passed along to consumers.
Traditionally only 10 percent of the nation's hazardous waste has been disposed of safely, according to the EPA. The rest has gone into unsafe municipal landfills, open pits, and lagoons or left in vacant lots by so-called "midnight dumpers." The new rules will require large companies that handle or store hazardous wastes to obtain government permits for doing business, and those with facilities that fail to meet the EPA's tougher new standards will have to improve them.
Environmentalists are concerned that the regulations exempt too many smaller companies, those generating less than 2,200 pounds of hazardous wastes monthly. They also fault the EPA criteria for determining which chemicals are toxic and the number of chemicals on the government's proposed list of substances to be controlled. Lawyers for the Environmental Defense Fund, for instance, warn that only 40 million of the 50 million metric tons of hazardous wastes expected to be generated next year will be covered by the EPA rules. These are concerns that deserve further attention. The EPA itself, in fact, notes that the regulations issued this week are only a first, although important, step and that more chemicals will need to be added to the list over te next decade.
The regulations do not affect the some 500 to 800 abandoned dumps that no longer accept wastes, however. Under current law, the EPA does not have the authority to enforce cleanups of such sites. Bills currently before Congress would create a "superfund" of $1.6 billion for the EPA to start work on the most dangerous of these. One House proposal would have industry pay for 75 percent of the cleanup fund. A version in the Senate would compensate victims of chemical disasters and make it easier for them to sue a company for personal or property damages brought about by improper dumping.
Such legislation might help overcome the understandable reluctance of citizens to have dump sites located in their communities. More recycling of wastes and conversion to manufacturing processes that generate fewer wastes are also needed and might, in fact, be encouraged by the new EPA regulations. In the long run, however, the chemical industry will have to make greater efforts than it has in the past to gain the public's confidence. The EPA controls, while not perfect, should help it do so.