Under the largest regulatory program ever launched by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), manufacturers now are responsible or tracking all hazardous waste that leaves plant gates. EPA officials agree that the new program, which went into effect last week, is a giant step forward in protecting the nation's water supplies and communities from the effects of hazardous wastes. But many EPA officials say it still could take years to solve the problems of illegal dumping.
Barbara Blum, deputy administrator of the EPA, says, "Even with the regulations, we'll be lucky to get on top of our hazardous waste problem in the next 10 years.
"For the last 50 years chemicals have literally been thrown out the backdoor. It's going to be a long process to reverse the roles."
Before the new regulations, known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, were announced last May, the EPA estimated that about 90 percent of the 57 million metric tons of hazardous waste generated annually by industry were improperly handled.
Many manufacturers passed their hazardous waste off to small trucking companies, who for a small fee would dispose of the wastes wherever they could get away with it -- in empty warehouse, city sewers, farms, fields, and roadsides.
Many firms are still operating this way, according to government and industry sources.
Richard Hanneman, director of government and public affairs at the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), says he assumes "there are a substantial number of companies" who are not yet aware of the new regulations.
"Since August, I have had occasion to address groups that represent industries that produce hazardous wastes, mostly generators. I have explained the new law and asked them if they were aware of it. For the most part, they said they were not and had not filed."
The EPA expected to receive 100,000 notifications from companies who handled hazardous wastes but received only 60,000, says Sarah compton, deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Water Enforcement. The EPA sent out 300,000 packets of information to companies they thought would be interested.