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Hazardous waste

By Emilie Travel LivezeyStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 6, 1980


Visitors to Chicago's Shedd Aquarium were dumbfounded to see a diver plunge to the bottom of a tank with a printing plate in hand and develop it before their eyes while a moray eel wrapped itself around his waist and a shark cruised between his legs.

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They were more astounded still when he clambered out, put the plate on a printing press set up for the occasion, ran off prints, and handed them out to the bystanders.

Just some fishy PR stunt? Sure. But with a point. It was 3M's way of announcing that Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company has come out with an offset printing plate that is developed not in the conventional way, with processed chemicals that can pollute the environment, but with a water-soluble coating so harmless it won't even sully a fish tank.

However you look at it, that dive into the tank represents hope for the environment. One big chemical company eliminates a process that produced polluting byproducts. Even more encouraging, the dive typifies a new trend -- a commitment by industry and government alike to deal effectively with hazardous wastes and a surge of inventive ways to do it.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, factories have been spewing out hazardous waste, but only recently has there been any apparent awareness of its threat to health, drinking water, and the environment. Now there's a determination to solve the problem.

"The science of waste management is just beginning to emerge from the Dark Ages," said one speaker at a Washington conference in October on "Management of Uncontrolled Hazardous Waste Sites," sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

To which Deputy EPA Administrator Barbara Blum added, "We are awakening to the fact that ultimate solutions to the hazardous waste problem must involve all of us." By "all of us" she meant industry, government, and the public.

At the moment, the whole American chemical industry is in a state of revolution, if not shock. For the first time in its history the way it disposes of its hazardous waste is going to be federally regulated, right down to the last obnoxious ounce. Nov. 19 is when it all begins happening, when all the careless, sloppy old ways of dumping hazardous byproducts into pits, ponds, lagoons, and leaky landfills go out the window.

On the date, six months after EPA announced its long- awaited interim standards for the treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste, the new ways of doing things will get going. These regulations were issued under RCRA -- the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act signed by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976.

Under a new system beginning this month, all generators of hazardous waste -- including manufacturers and users of dangerous chemicals -- as well as transporters of the stuff, must keep accurate records of this material from the point of origin to final disposal in some secure landfill or incinerator, and make a strict accounting to EPA for every pound of it.

Exacting standards also go into force requiring proper management of hazardous wastes at facilities that treat, store, or dispose of it. EPA hopes to issue by the end of this year -- or by spring at the latest -- detailed regulations covering the design, performance, and operation of these facilities.

In addition, under RCRA's "imminent-hazard provision," EPA can force an owner of a dangerous dump site, abandoned or otherwise, to clean up the mess. EPA is committed to a vigorous enforcement program. It has already filed 51 court cases, and 200 more cases are under investigation for possible legal action.