Now that they've got the laws, where will they put the hazardous waste?

By , Staff correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor

Quandry is a fictitious town in New England. It was invented by the New England Regional Commission for a three-day workshop of the siting of hazardous waste facilities.

"We had real local officials play the part of Quandry's officials. And we had representatives from industry playing the part of would-be hazardous waste facility operators. There were public meetings, even some shouting matches, but the sides were able to negotiate and agreement was reached," explains Peter Schneider of the commission.

The name, Quandry, was chosen for a reason. Because of the strength of local opposition, no new hazardous waste treatment facilities have been approved since the revelations of Love Canal, and a number of existing facilities have been closed.

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If this continues, it many bring down with a resounding crash the elaborate new regulatory machinery being laboriously erected to manage hazardous wastes. This is one of the few issues on which government officials, environmentalists, and industry representatives agree.

"If problems with public opposition cannot be solved, the implications may be enormous," warned a 1979 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report.

The nation's new cradle-to-grave management program for hazardous wastes authorized by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), passed in 1976, will force a number of existing sites to close and will increase the demand for permitted sites. At the same time, attempts to clean up abandoned sites under the newly passed $1.6 billion "superfund" legislation will increase further the quantities of material to be properly disposed of.

"If public opposition continues to frustrate siting attempts, there may be no place to put all this hazardous waste, and the national effort to regulate hazardous waste may collapse," the EPA report continued.

Members of insdustry tend to agree with J. F. Byrd of Procter & Gamble, who has characterized the situation as "the same old story: Everyone wants their waste picked up, but no one wants it set down in their community."

But extensive publicity surrounding hazardous waste has generated fears that go far beyond those common with other "nuisance" facilities such as power plants , prisons, sewage treatment plants, and airports. In one case, an angry mob nearly blew up a waste facility. And there have been reports of death threats relating to other siting reports.

Opposition to new facilities has come from all segments of society. In many cases, these opponents have drawn on the experience of antiwar activists to organize with extreme effectiveness. The EPA has concluded that this opposition is likely to become more widespread and sophisticated.

Some industry representatives and state hazardous waste officials blame the EPA, at least partially, for this situation. They say that in its lobbying efforts for superfund legislation, the EPA repeatedly exaggerated the magnitude of the problem and failed to point out that these wastes can be disposed of safely.

"It's difficult to raise the problem of hazardous waste in a constructive manner," rebuts Sandra Gardebring from the EPa Chicago office. "We have consistently said that these wastes can be handled safely. But all many people remember is the bad part. And, after all, we are not the bureau of good news."

These deep-seated public fears exist even though most experts believe treatment and disposal facilities can operate without damage to human health or the environment.

And if these fears continue to impede the establishment of properly managed waste treatment facilities, experts foresee an increase in pressure for midnight dumping an other illegal methods because of a shortage in disposal capacity.

An EPA study of the hazardous waste disposal capacity/demand picture, just released, concludes that there is enough disposal capacity to meet current demands nationwide.

"Yet this conclusion masks some serious regional shortages," says Alan Farkas of the consulting firm Booz, Allen, and Hamilton. Mr. Farkas, who helped prepare the report, says the worst are in the Midwest and Northeast. In New England, disposal capacity is only equivalent to one-tenth the amount of hazardous wastes produced.

The EPA report also did not include the probable effects of RCRA or the wastes that might be removed from abandoned sites under the new superfund legislation on existing capacity.

This situation has generated a considerable amount of activity throughout the nation. Environmentalists, state hazardous waste officials, and generators of hazardous waste have been pressuring many state governments to take an "affirmative role." Michigan and New York have passed laws that preempt the rights of local communities to block establishment of these controversial facilities. But in many other states this is considered politically unacceptable.

Extensive public education programs and public participation in facility design and siting are being proposed. Mitigation of the adverse effects of these plants, compensation for those impacts that cannot be mitigated, and "incentives" to sweeten community responses are being considered and debated.

Still, thoughtful experts admit that even with all these efforts, a certain, irreducible inequity will remain. Proper disposal facilities benefit society as a whole by allowing people to use the many products that produce hazardous waste as a byproduct and by reducing the illegal and improper waste disposal. On the other hand, those who live near even a properly run site do assume some increased risk.

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