Tidying up laws on toxic waste: progress is slow

The US government's regulation of hazardous-waste disposal is badly in need of a cleanup. The sight of men in moon suits moving gingerly through the dioxin-tainted town of Times Beach, Mo., graphically conveyed the dangers of toxic messes. The federal effort to prevent future Times Beaches, however, is hampered by several problems:

* The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA, pronounced ''Recra''), which sets standards for hazardous-waste storage and disposal, expired in 1982. After failing last year, Congress has begun another attempt to reauthorize and tighten the act.

* Meanwhile, the EPA has fallen far behind schedule in issuing final permits for hazardous-waste handling facilities. It now appears the backlog of applications for such permits won't be cleared up until at least 1990.

Mopping up the most dangerous of the 14,000 hazardous-waste dumps already identified in the United States is the task of Superfund, a $1.6 billion pile of cash authorized by Congress in 1980. But day-to-day management of toxic waste is the responsibility of Superfund's older sibling, RCRA.

RCRA, passed in 1976, regulates the creation, transportation, storage, and disposal of some 40 million tons of toxic wastes a year. Its job is to prevent the kind of wanton dumping that polluted Times Beach and Love Canal in New York.

But last September, while Congress was engaged in a fight that would eventually lead to the resignation of EPA administrator Anne Burford, RCRA quietly expired.

That doesn't mean hazardous-waste producers can now do whatever they please; interim regulation continues on the strength of a budget bill passed last year. It does mean Congress has missed a self-imposed deadline for modernizing the law.

Now, with the probes and allegations surrounding EPA's ''Sewergate'' troubles fading from memory, Capitol Hill is again tackling the task of reauthorizing RCRA. This week a House committee is expect to begin final consideration of a bill that would renew and tighten the hazardous-waste act. Senate action is expected soon.

The House bill would for the first time bring many dry cleaners, gas stations , and other small businesses under RCRA's sway. Current law exempts all businesses that handle less than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) a month of hazardous waste; the reauthorization bill would lower the cutoff to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) a month.

The bill also would require anyone who burns fuel mixed with hazardous waste to notify the EPA. Dumping of hazardous waste into landfills would be reduced under the new law, and several substances would be added to the EPA's list of hazardous materials.

''Incredibly, not all dioxins are now regulated. The bill would mandate their regulation by EPA,'' says an aide to Rep. James Florio (D) if New Jersey, sponsor of the legislation.

Under the House bill, EPA would also face a new set of deadlines for finishing a task that has fallen far behind schedule - final licensing of facilities that store and dispose of hazardous wastes.

Back in 1976, when it passed RCRA, Congress gave the EPA 18 months to set standards for handlers of hazardous materials. But the environmental agency did not wrap up this horrendously complicated task until last January.

Now EPA is just getting around to passing out final permits to warehouses, incinerators, and landfills that meet its standards. Weakened by budget cuts, the agency is proceeding slowly: Only 16 final permits have so far been issued. Congressional sources estimate it will be 1991 before the EPA works off its application backlog.

''It takes a long time to evaluate these facilities. In the meantime, inadequate ones are permitted to continue operating,'' says one congressional staffer.

But EPA employees grumble that they're moving as fast as they can. An EPA-permits official says the agency has more than 100 complete applications awaiting a final nod. The agency will issue 5 to 15 licenses a month during the summer, says this official, with the pace picking up in the fall.

Even the EPA's many critics admit the agency appears to be taking hazardous-waste regulation more seriously since the departure of Anne Burford.

''There's a different attitude at EPA now. People are saying, 'yes, we're going to move on these things,' '' says Lester Brown, coauthor of the book, ''Hazardous Waste in America.''

Lee Thomas, the EPA's acting solid-waste chief, assured a congressional subcommittee in March that making hazardous-waste laws effective will be ''an early and high priority'' of administrator-designate William Ruckelshaus. Mr. Thomas indicated that the agency was already considering tougher standards for landfills that handle hazardous substances.

But the uproar over the administration's environmental policies has already seriously complicated the job of finding a place to put America's hazardous wastes, some observers fear.

''The public now refuses to accept even RCRA-approved (disposal) sites near their homes,'' worries Richard Hanneman, an official of the National Solid Waste Management Association. ''But if we don't get new facilities, that waste will go where it's been put in the past - improper sites.''

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