Hazards at the EPA

Is the Environmental Protection Agency becoming hazardous to the public health? Some environmentalists actually ask that question in the light of a number of recent decisions by the EPA that would seem to impose environmental hazards rather than monitor, regulate, and bar them--which is what the agency is supposed to do under its congressional mandate. Many of the decisions would undo the few controls on hazardous waste that have been built into law after long and difficult political battles.

Consider these actions by the EPA:

* It has suspended for 90 days current rules that ban the burying of drums of hazardous liquids at waste disposal landfills. Because of the furor over this suspension, the rule is expected to be reinstated. But in the meantime how much damage has been done by new dumping?

* It has proposed new rules that would end requirements that hazardous waste dumps carry liability insurance.

* It has just suspended requirements that companies file yearly reports on what happens to the hazardous wastes they produce. Instead, the agency proposes that it will make an annual survey of disposal practices by 10 percent of the firms involved.

The latest action--undertaken in the name of deregulation and economic efficiency--can hardly be reckoned as serving the public interest. It was precisely because of public outrage at indiscriminate dumping (often in the dark of night and in shoddy containers leading to leakage and contamination) that Congress enacted the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The intention of the act was to monitor waste from the time of inception until disposal. It was felt that only that type of continuous scrutiny, including the requirement that manufacturers sign statements submitted to a government agency, would be a sufficient deterrent to flagrant abuses. By removing that safeguard, the EPA has in effect invited hazardous waste makers who may not be quite so scrupulous in their conduct to warm up the trucks once again for midnight dumping.

In defense of the scrapping of the annual report requirement, one EPA official is reported to have said that much of the information in the reports is found to be inaccurate anyway. If so, this would seem to warrant even tougher agency surveillance and enforcement of waste requirements, not a scrapping of the reporting procedure.

Public opinion surveys repeatedly show that Americans support a clean and safe environment. Congress has entrusted the EPA with helping to ensure that condition. The public cannot help but be concerned when the EPA seems to be backing away from a very special trust.

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