Latest EPA rules ride herd on toxic wastes until they're safely corraled at disposal sites
Close tabs on hazardous wastes from manufacture to disposal. That is the intent of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The first phase of RCRA regulations went into effect Nov. 20, although RCRA was passed in 1976.Skip to next paragraph
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It took a series of environmental lawsuits to pry these regulations out of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But once disgorged, they turned out to be monumental. The 2,000 pages of regulations were described by Chris Beack, EPA assistant administrator, as the most complex set ever issued by a federal agency. He pegs the cost of implementation of RCRA at $1 billion. In addition, the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) estimates that compliance will cost their industry $2 billion.
It is the first attempt to rectify decades of neglect. Previous to RCRA "more effort [had] gone into the regulation of restaurants and taxicabs than into establishing a safe network for waste disposal," observes Steffan Plehn, EPA's deputy assistant administrator. The complexity and cost of these efforts are, in part reflection of the size of the social problem that hazardous wastes represent.
Annual production of synthetic organic chemicals, for example, has increased from 10 pounds per person in 1940 to more than 2,000 pounds today.
At present, there are some 48,000 chemicals used incommerce. For 5,000 of these, production exceeds 1 million pounds per year. About 1,500 ingredients in pesticides, 4,000 in drugs, 5,500 in food additives, 1,200 compounds in household products, and some 2,500 chemicals and mixtures used by the plastics industry are poisonous to various degrees and can be hazardous if disposed of improperly. the IPA estimates that only 10 percent of all hazardous wastes are currently disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.
RCRA is an effort to see that responsible disposal of these toxic materials takes place. It does now deal with the problem of abandoned sites: This will be addressed by the recently passed superfund legislation. It is silent on the issue of the siting of disposal facilities.
What this newborn regulator does deal with is the manner in which hazardous wastes are transported and how disposal sites are managed. Many of the details of its structure are hazy, and experts say it is too early to assess how effective it will be. Still, those familiar with the new regulations find much to criticize.
First, RCRA sets up a system of manifests for hazardous wastes that begins with the manufacturer of the waste and follows the waste to the disposal site, where the manifest is signed and returned to the manufacturer. If the manufacturer does not receive notification that a shipment of has been properly disposed of within 45 days, it is supposed to contact the EPA, or, if authorized , the state hazardous waste office.
"EPA's manifest system is minimal," explains Peter Schneider of the New England Regional Commission. Eleven Northeastern states are implementing a manifest system that goes far beyond EPA regulations. It will be a "closed-loop tracking system" that allows the states to keep almost daily tabs on interstate and intrastate shipments of hazardous wastes.
Another aspect of the new rules is a two-tiered classification for hazardous wastes. The EPA has published a list of particularly noxious substances that must be handled with special care. All other wastes that meet certain minimum tests for toxicity are treated similarly. All generators who produce more than a minimum amount of these substances are obliged to register with the EPA.
The new regulations also set management standards for disposal facilities, but these are strictly administrative. Operators of these facilities must either bond themselves or set up a trust fund to ensure the site is monitored for 30 years after it is closed. Also, operators must have liability insurance of $1 million per site to protect against explosions and other accidents.