New ways to treat toxic waste are tangled in US red tape

Technology may hold the key to solving America's hazardous-waste problems. But some businessmen complain that federal regulations are discouraging the kind of technical innovations that could greatly reduce the threat of future toxic-waste crises.

Take the case of Michael Modell. The former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who left the school to perfect a toxic-waste treatment process he invented, says it took 15 months to get EPA permission to conduct a three-month trial run of his process.

``We spent three years and millions of dollars trying to build and demonstrate a scaled-up but small unit,'' Mr. Modell says, adding that after all that, the company faced an even greater problem: getting an EPA permit to test the process.

The innovative know-how and financing already exist in the private sector to develop efficient hazardous-waste treatment and disposal technologies. All the government has to do is get out of the way, according to a group of businessmen and scientists who testified at a House environment subcommittee hearing last week.

``We are quite willing to compete in the marketplace against other new technologies,'' says Louis Flax of Lopat Enterprises of Wanamassa, N.J. ``But we need an open market where the government does not stand in the way of innovations by United States companies.''

For its part, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is concerned that new, untested methods of disposing of toxic materials may backfire, compounding the cleanup problem and heightening the threat to public health and safety.

Congress is now in the process of rewriting part of the nation's toxic-waste cleanup laws. Some lawmakers are looking hard for ways to create incentives for industry to develop and use alternatives to landfill dump sites. Landfill waste sites are seen as intermediate storing grounds for toxic chemicals that nonetheless pose immediate and long-term environmental threats.

At present, the primary means for disposing of toxic wastes are landfill disposal, storage in open lagoons, incineration, and the pumping of wastes into deep caverns. The broad goal is for more treatment of hazardous waste to render it nontoxic, rather than long-term stockpiling.

A congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) study released last week identifies 26 innovative waste-treatment technologies such as bacteria that break down chemicals; the use of water under high heat and pressure to dissolve toxics into nontoxic components; and cementlike mixtures that bond with toxics to keep them from leaching into soil.

Concerns have been raised that Congress and the EPA are not using private-sector market forces to their best advantage in encouraging an end to landfill dumping. It is still cheaper, environmentalists say, to dispose of hazardous waste on landfill sites, despite the apparent long-term environmental costs.

``You have a host of technologies right now that could be tested in the field,'' says Joel Hirschhorn of OTA.

Mr. Hirschhorn, who also appeared before the subcommittee, estimated that in two to four years such new technologies could ``greatly enhance the repertoire of EPA to deal with Superfund toxic-waste cleanup sites.'' But he accused the EPA of being biased against innovative technology, both in terms of attitude and in terms of its research-and-development budget, which he estimated at $25 million in the past five years. He said the EPA research budget should be 10 times higher.

``This is really a critical time,'' Hirschhorn said. ``If we don't see a change [in current environmental regulations], I think we will see a number of companies drop out of the market.''

EPA spokesman Dave Cohen denies the agency has an anti-innovation bias. ``We are doing everything possible to try to find innovative ways to handle waste,'' Mr. Cohen says. But he adds, ``It is our feeling that it is not an error to require proven technology.''

Jeffrey Newton of New Materials Technology Corporation of Wichita, Kan., says what is lacking is a clear set of pollution guidelines from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, answering the thorny question, `How clean is clean enough?'

The business community has complained that EPA pollution standards are vague, making it difficult to design a system to comply with environmental laws. A seemingly innocuous change in the regulations could substantially increase development costs. Such uncertainties make it more difficult to attract private-sector investors.

Mr. Newton says that under current regulations ``no one knows what technology is going to be acceptable to the regulatory agencies.''

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