It's time to mesh hazardous-waste strategy

For nearly a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency has been fighting the hazardous-waste war on two fronts: controlling newly generated wastes and dealing with ``old'' refuse (at dump sites). In 1976 Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). This law, which regulates the management and disposal of currently generated hazardous waste, was amended in 1984. One of the key changes was virtually to outlaw land-based storage.

Front No. 2 is ``Superfund,'' the popular name for the act established in 1980 under the formal and somewhat forbidding title of Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act.

Superfund deals with the past sins of hazardous-waste producers. It authorizes the federal government to take action to remove dangerous substances from both active and inactive disposal sites and to clean up emergency spills. Liability for cleanup costs rests with the companies whose wastes have contaminated a disposal site.

Financed by taxes on the petroleum and chemical industries, Superfund -- in its five years of life -- has been used to begin cleanup of 120 or so of the 800 ``priority sites'' thus far identified.

EPA designates a ``priority site'' by assessing its potential danger and assigning those in most urgent need of cleanup to the National Priorities List. Only NPL sites are eligible for Superfund money. As of May, however, only six such sites had been completely restored by EPA.

In addition to fighting on two fronts and achieving few victories in this war on toxic waste, EPA has been accused of underestimating the ``enemy's strength.''

For example, EPA estimates that between 1,400 and 2,200 hazardous-waste sites will ultimately make its priority list. At the same time, the United States Office of Technology Assessment claims there are 10,000 such sites, a quantity light-years away from EPA's figures.

Depending on which numbers are used for the calculation, the cost of a national cleanup ranges from $10 billion to $100 billion.

But even if as much as $100 billion could be earmarked for toxic-refuse cleanup over the coming years, the problem would be a long way from being solved. There are at least three reasons this is so.

First, it will take time for industry to develop and install equipment to reduce the generation of new hazardous waste (now at more than 200 million metric tons a year).

Second, EPA cannot effectively deal with more than 130 cleanups annually.

Third, public commitment to locate disposal sites has yet to solidify: As a nation, we are still in the ``not in my backyard'' frame of mind.

Superfund will expire Sept. 30, but it is likely that Congress will renew it. One major change will likely be the appropriation of more money to expedite cleanup.

Both houses of Congress seem disposed to greatly expand the funding for waste site cleanup. The latest House bill calls for a $10 billion program, and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has approved spending $7.5 billion over five years.

How will these additional revenues be raised?

Herein lies the opportunity to consolidate the two battle fronts.

A key new source of funds proposed both by the administration and the House of Representatives is a ``waste end'' tax. As the name implies, a waste-end tax would be levied on the companies that actually send hazardous substances to disposal sites.

The easiest way to collect the tax would be to charge the producer at the point of disposal (there are about 5,000 legal disposal sites). In time this costly tax could motivate companies to invest in the technology needed to deal with these unwanted byproducts at the point of production -- by recycling, solidifying, or incinerating it.

The estimates of future amounts of hazardous waste are not written in the stars. Changes in production processes can reduce hazardous waste. For example, the United States Steel Corporation has reduced its generation of dangerous refuse by almost 50 percent in four years. The company also cut its use of land-fill sites by 80 percent over a five-year period.

The proposed tax on waste generators would encourage waste reduction. In striking contrast, the House would raise an additional $4.5 billion from a broad-based corporate tax. That would generate more revenue but would do nothing to encourage better refuse management practices.

Still, a waste-end tax is no panacea. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that a combination of the current tax and a graduated waste-end tax would leave 229 million metric tons a year to be disposed of in 1990.

Raising the costs of legally dealing with this material may also tempt smaller companies that believe they can escape notice to engage in ``midnight dumping.'' This practice could be minimized by providing companies with information on economical means of disposal and by tough prosecution of lawbreakers.

Nonetheless, throwing more money at the problem of hazardous-waste cleanup than EPA can effectively use (as Congress seems wont to do) is sure to generate disappointment.

Progress is almost certain to be painfully slow, because of the complexities and sheer size of this task.

As we have seen time and again, there are limits to what a government agency can accomplish. Too often, Congress has spread EPA's efforts too thin, rather than ensuring that the agency carries on its priority work more effectively.

The money for Superfund does not need to be increased. The law should also provide more incentive to reduce future generation of dangerous refuse in the United States.

The waste-end tax is one way to accomplish both of these objectives. Both RCRA and Superfund would be ``joining forces'' in the battle to take the hazards out of hazardous waste.

A former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Murray Weidenbaum is now director of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.

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