Boston — On a dark, still night in a large expanse of marshland in Southeastern New Hampshire, a huge tank truck backs down a gravelly drive. Moments later, nozzles open and 8,000 gallons of chemicals so dangerous they can eat through solid metal flow out onto the ground. The chemicals sizzle and burn.Birds scream and circle in the air. The truck drives away.
In southern Tennessee, residents of a small town to outside to pick up their morning papers and are shocked to find all the trees and grass along the roadside dead. A truck has gone through in the night, dumping toxic wastes strong enough -- says one driver who regularly hauls the chemicals legally -- to "melt car tires and windshield wipers."
In New York, a trucker is "tipped off" that a certain company is looking for someone to dispose of a load of hydrochloric acid waste. He arranges to pick up the load and then dumps it on an abandoned pier.
Despite considerable recent negative publicity and efforts at reform, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that close to 90 percent of all hazardous wastes in the United States are handles improperly. A smaller percentage is dumped unscrupulously.
So-called "gypsy truckers" or "midnight dumpers" all over the United States are disposing of toxic wastes whatever they can without getting caught. Chemical companies may not even know that their wastes are being dumped illegally. Often, truckers are paid the full fee to deliver a load to a licensed dump, but drop their cargoes instead in the nearest deserted place.
Moreover, the problem apparently is being compounded by new federal regulations for the safe disposal of toxic wastes, which come into full effect Nov. 19. These regulations mean an additional expense for chemical companies, some of which are choosing to get rid of accumulated wastes quickly and dangerously before the rules take effect.
"Firms are dreading the November deadline," says Alan J. Borner, associate coordinator of the University of New Hampshire Environmental Research Laboratory and chairman of the New Hampshire Governor's Task Force on Hazardous Waste.
Not all chemical dumping is necessarily illegal, says Dr. Geraldine Cox, vice-president and technical director of the Chemical Manufacturers' Association. Rather, she says, it is "environmentally unsound." In some areas, she maintains, laws are so vague or minimal that chemical dumping is practically encouraged.
Frank Napal, director of public affairs for the New York EPA office, says dumping problems are most serious in parts of New Jersey, Texas, Ohio, and Massachusetts, plus a few other areas that produce the largest volumes of hazardous wastes.
Paul Keough, director of the office of public awareness for the New England office of the EPA, says: "With the enactment of the new EPA regulations, chemical companies are realizing they could get stuck with stockpiles of wastes which will be made more expensive to dispose of. They're trying to cut costs and corners now."
Most EPA sources say there is a "pre-arranged setup" or network by which haulers learn of companies looking for midnight dumpers. Once the necessary arrangements are made, these haulers surreptitiously pick up their loads and drop them wherever they can. They then rendezvous with whoever coordinated the job to pick up their money.
Some who have an interest in the matter even allege that organized crime is heavily involved in illicit chemical dumping. Mr. Keough says there is an "organized system," especially in the Northeast, but he is unsure of criminal affiliation."
A report on the involvement of organized crime in illegal dumping in New York recently was issued by state Attorney General Robert Abram. the report cited, in the words of Mr. Borner, "overwhelming evidence of the pervasive role organized crime plays in waste disposal."
Dumping methods vary. Some firms purchase or lease trucks, fill them with chemical wastes, and then abandon them. In North Berwick, Maine, seven such trucks were found full of wastes. One day, officials cleaned up five of them only to return the next day and find that two additional trucks had been left.
In Salem, Mass., persons with toxic wastes to dispose of bought a warehouse, then abandoned it after filling it with barrels of such materials.
Says one source. "There are as many different methods of getting rid of the stuff as there are truckers."
Moreover, the chances of an illegal dumper being caught by police are minimal. "Truckers must be in the act of dumping to be found out; unless they've had an accident," says Mr. Keough. "Often truckers get phony manifests [sheets that record the materials a commercial hauler is carrying], and unless the fluids are tested there is nothing the police can do."
"The dumping is not the fault of the large, major chemical corporations like Du Pont or Monsanto," emphasizes Dr. Cox. "It is the small one- or two-man operations, with limited financial backing, that are contracting illegally with haulers."
"Many companies have never paid the true cost of proper waste disposal," says Keough. "The cost has been passed on to the consumer in the form of contamination. But now the free ride is ending."
Mark Griffiths, environmental affairs analyst for the National Association of Manufacturers, says small firms just are not equipped to handle toxic wastes. "With the new regulations, they're worse off than ever," he maintains.
Disposing of wastes costs small businesses more than larger ones, because their on-site dumping capabilities are minimal. Many of the small firms are forced to transport wastes to safe facilities, which can be hundreds of miles away, Mr. Griffiths says.
New England, for example, does not have a single licensed chemical dumping area.
Complicating the problem is the fact that no one wants dumping sites nearby, Keough points out. But the lack of sites leads to increased "gypsy" dumping, he says, and "the people lose out one way or another."
Griffiths speculates that "midnight dumping" will continue to increase until November, when the new standards will make it "harder to get away with."
In the meantime, the EPA stresses the need for citizen awareness to help meet the problem. Says one spokesman for the agency, "If something is going on that looks funny, we're teaching citizens to be aware of it and alert the police."