Action at last on dangerous dumps

The new regulations for hazardous waste disposal sites proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) represent a step in the right direction. They impose exacting design and construction rules for new landfill sites while imposing at least minimal monitoring and cleanup requirements on existing sites. The proposals, particularly regarding older sites, do not fully satisfy the concerns of environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund. On the other hand, considering that it will cost US industry at least $500 million annually to enforce the rules, the proposals would have to be considered fairly comprehensive for an administration that has vowed to end excessive and costly governmental red tape.

The proposals essentially do two things:

* In the case of new sites, all land disposal sites and liquid-storage facilities will have to install a liner system made out of an impermeable material to forestall seepage.

* Both new and existing sites will be subject to monitoring - including up to 30 years after a site has been closed. When a landfill is closed, it must be capped.

EPA officials concede that the new proposals establish a clear distinction between new and older sites. But they contend that to require existing landfills to establish a liner system, as would be mandatory for newer sites, would be excessively costly. It would also be dangerous since modifying existing dumps would require that refuse in those sites be temporarily removed. Furthermore, there could be long delays for firms needing dumps for waste products.

Yet, what is a reasonable pricetag for protecting the public health? If industry produces a product that may have dangerous byproducts, does it not have a responsibility to dispose properly of that product?

The proposed rules are now open for public comment. Barring changes,they will go into effect in six months. During this review period the burden of proof is on environmental groups to show the EPA how existing sites could be made more secure at costs that are not unduly prohibitive. If they can do that, the EPA should seriously consider tightening its rules pertaining to existing landfills.

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