Businessmen, politicians worry about complex waste dump rules

As deadlines approach for compliance with new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on hazardous wastes, many businesses are reacting with alarm at the complexity of the new rules.

Indeed, the Federal Register's 522-page "Hazardous Waste and Consolidated Permit Regulations" is somewhat overwhelming, especially when one adds the preamble and 8,000 pages of background documents.

Even an EPA lawyer refers to it as "probably the most complex set of regulations" generated by the agency, adding, "It's an awful lot to ask people and states to absorb."

The new regulations are intended to change the generation, transportation, and disposal of hazardous waste -- 90 percent of which is handled improperly, according to EPA estimates. In addition to defining and listing the wastes considered hazardous, they establish a "cradle to grave" system of tracking the wastes from the company generating them, to the transporter, and finally to the disposal facility.

According to one estimate, 67,000 hazardous waste generators, 5,000 transporters, and 26,000 disposal facilities nationwide will be directly affected.

In New England a unique program is easing the impact of the new regulations. The regional EPA office, in conjunction with the New England Council and state business associations, is sponsoring forums throughout the six-state area to explain the new regulations and answer questions about them.

Nearly 2,000 New Englanders already have attended such sessions. In Boston, 300 people were expected; 450 signed up.

Joseph Baerlein of the New England Council points out that while many people associate hazardous wastes with giant companies, in New England 80 percent of the companies generating hazardous wastes have 50 or fewer employees. For the small companies, the forums are especially helpful.

"Large companies with big legal staffs can go through the regulations and take them apart section by section," he says. "But here we're talking about a lot of small jewelry companies, electroplating, tanning industries, paper companies, a lot of the high-technology firms, and consumer product companies. For the most part, they don't have a lot of lawyers and chemists. Much of what we have today are the smaller guys -- maybe the president of a company that has 10 employees, and he's taken a day off from work to be here."

The forums do not attempt to go through the regulations page by page. Instead, they highlight applicable sections, explain how to fill out the forms, alert people to crucial deadlines, and let them know who to call for further help. And, says Paul Keough, director of the EPA regional Office of Public Awareness, they also provide a synopsis of the regulations "in English."

I think industry is going away with the feeling that the program isn't as difficult as it may look when you see the thousands of pages of regulations -- that it's not going to be that complex," he adds.

Some of the questions people ask indicate the confusion over the regulations:

* If a transporter collects waste in New England and takes it to Alabama, does he need to notify each region of the country he goes through?

* If a container was used to hold a hazardous waste, is it, too, cosidered hazardous waste?

Who determines whether one's wastes are hazardous?

* How quickly does enforcement start?

Naturally, says Mr. Keough, industry is not happy about the added cost of the new regulations. But, by and large, it is aware of the problems caused by hazardous wastes.

He says that, overall, there has been a sense of appreciation on the part of thepeople he has talked with that the EPA is taking time to help them better understand the regulations.

Businesses in other parts of the country are not so fortunate.

"Everyone else is just going to get a big packet, with the register and a letter from [EPA chief] Douglas Costle," says Mr. Baerlein wryly.

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