Companies that generate toxic chemical and industrial wastes now must take responsibility for their proper disposal under regulations issued by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The new rules are to prevent indiscriminate dumping of nonnuclear hazardous wastes, which has threatened the environment and public safety in may parts of the United States.
But will the more stringent US standards encourage the export of these dangerous substances overseas, creating a problem of wider proportion?
"It would have the effect of driving waste out of the country," speculates an investigator with a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives that has conducted a lengthy study of American toxic waste disposal. The higher cost and potential delays in building new disposal facilities as a result of tougher federal standards could encourage industry to export wastes, he reasons -- or even switch overseas some operations that generate toxic waste.
In one attempt to address the issue, a federal interagency task force has been studying ways to tighten export controls on a wide range of potentially dangerous American products and substances, including toxic waste.
EPA officials agree the export of toxic waste was not clearly addressed in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, which called for the regulations now being issued.
The EPA recently issued rules requiring companies that generate hazardous wastes to keep close track of the substances even after they have changed hands for disposal. In effect, a company must have records showing the toxic waste was properly disposed of. If the company does not get a signed manifest from a proper disposal or treatment facility within 35 days of shipment it must notify the EPA.
In the past, some disposal operators simply dumped wastes in vacant lots and and let them sit unattended in barrels that eventually rusted and spilled dangerous chemicals into water systems, causing health problems.
The record-keeping standards are the first set of regulations resulting from the 1976 law. The most controversial rules -- actual definitions of toxic waste and standards for construction and operation of disposal sites -- will be issued in April.
The chemical industry, a major source of toxic wastes, generally is supportive of the new rules. The Chemical Manufacturers Association said it was "delighted" with the newly required record-keeping system, which goes into effect in October.
James R. Wolfe, president of Nedlog Technology Group Inc., a Colorado-based waste treatment company, said the standards EPA has indicated it will issue regarding construction and operation of disposal facilities are proper and industry can meet them.
However, Mr. Wolfe contended there will be long delays in the construction of new disposal facilities because the EPA has proposed no mechanism for overriding local objections to new disposal facilities.
"Nobody will want these plants next door, even if we meet all the technical standards of EPA," he said. Consequently, "It will take years to get permits under the EPA system. We'll be forced to look overseas for plant locations."
Nedlog has explored the possibility of building a new disposal facility in Sierra Leone and is waiting for an official response from the government of that African country. But Mr. Wolfe said the US State Department already has indicated it does not favor the project.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality has asked the EPA to see what, if any, export restrictions could be imposed on toxic waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The EPA is studying the matter.
"It's clear there is potential for export of these toxic wastes," says Margaret Brown of the EPA Office of International Activities. She says she believes the issue boils down to one of foreign policy: "What is the US responsibility for these substances, and how would we feel it we ship [toxic waste] to countries ill-equipped to protect themselves?"