`Importer' States Rebel Against Hazardous Waste

13 band together, demand federal action to penalize `exporter' states

JUST say ``no'' to hazardous waste exports. That is what a group of states, tired of receiving most of the nation's toxic waste, are telling one another. Although they have yet to make good on their pledge, these 13 states - called States for Responsible and Equitable Waste Management - are trying to send a message to toxic waste exporting states.

By pushing for tougher federal action to penalize exporters, increasing waste disposal fees, and even banning certain large-scale exporters, these ``net importer'' states are pressuring other states to keep toxic waste within their own borders.

``Nearly 90 percent of the hazardous waste that comes to Alabama comes from out of state, says Leigh Pegues, director of Alabama's Department of Environmental Management. ``That's not fair. That's not right.'' Alabama and South Carolina are leading the campaign to crack down on exporters.

Major waste-exporting states like Massachusetts, California, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida have run into difficulties trying to build their own facilities. Often blamed are laborious siting procedures and the so-called ``not in my backyard'' (NIMBY) attitude of people who live near likely sites.

This fall, after four years of controversy, Massachusetts rejected a proposal by Clean Harbors Company to build a hazardous waste incinerator in Braintree, Mass., just south of Boston. It was the sixth project that disapproved since the 10-year search began. State environmental officials last month declared the site unsuitable because of the area's high population density. Clean Harbors had invested $14 million in the project.

``The basic problem is, the process works backwards,'' says Daniel Greenbaum, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. He says state siting rules allow a company to invest time and money in a project long before a license can be approved.

Industry officials say the long siting process, also common in other states, allows time for local opposition to build. ``If you look at Massachusetts and California, it's just kowtowing to NIMBY. I don't know how else you would put it,'' says Richard Fortuna, executive director of Hazardous Waste Treatment Council, a group of high-tech commercial firms that support strong regulation of hazardous waste.

Massachusetts environmental groups say building an incinerator will only encourage industry to continue using toxic chemicals. They urge industries to cut down use of toxics and to make greater efforts to comply with the state's Toxic Use Reduction Act. The goal of the act is to decrease industrial toxic chemical waste by 50 percent by 1997.

``Treatment and burning facilities perpetuate the mentality that got us into the mess we're in right now,'' says Rob Sargent of MASSPIRG, a state environmental group.

The 13 ``net importer'' states, however, are adamant about fighting toxic waste exports. Last year, South Carolina banned toxic exports from North Carolina for a three-month period. Alabama had a similar ban on exports. Such restrictions are being challenged in court, however, as in violation of interstate commerce laws.

The ``net importer'' states blame the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to crack down on ``capacity assurance'' plans. Under EPA rules, all states had to submit plans last fall on how they would handle hazardous waste over the next 20 years. EPA can withhold federal Superfund money if a state's plan is unacceptable. But the EPA says that so far no money has been withheld.

``Our main concern is that waste gets disposed of properly,'' says David Lim of the Boston regional EPA office. ``We're not expecting states to be self-sufficient.''

North Carolina, which has been trying to find a hazardous waste facility since 1984, is considering four sites. The state's deadline to have the facility up and running is Jan. 1, 1992.

``I feel very confident we will not meet the deadline,'' says Steve Reid, spokesman for the North Carolina solid waste management division. He cites local opposition as the main reason. North Carolina's search process involves considering a number of sites at once. But political battles erupt as communities fight against one another, ultimately forcing the state out of the decisionmaking process, says Mr. Fortuna.

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