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.
The cost of abiding by the new regulations is about 10 times greater than using a municipal trash disposal, says Joan Berkowitz, vice-president of Arthur D. Little Inc., a research and consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass.
"Firms sending hazardous wastes, such as paint and sludge, illegally to municipal disposals pay $10 to $20 a ton. The cost to send wastes to a secure chemical landfill costs $100 to $200 a ton."
Industry officials, however, believe the large chemical-producing companies will comply almost unfailingly with the regulations to avoid law suits.
The new regulations require that every truckload of hazardous waste leaving a plant must be accompanied by a shipper's manifest. Receivers of the waste must sent a copy of the manifest back to the manufacturer within 30 days.
Under the regulations, firms that treat, store, or dispose of hazardous wastes can no longer operate without EPA permits.
Individuals who knowingly abuse the new law and endanger human lives are subject to criminal penalties of up to $250,000 per violation and two-to-five years in prison.
Budget initiatives are under way at the EPA for criminal investigators who will work like private detectives to discover who is in violation of the law.
In the meantime, 40 petitioners, including the NSWMA, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Chemical Manufacturers Association, have filed lawsuits against the EPA because of the new regulations.
None of the lawsuits is intended to slow or impede the enforcement of the regulations, says te NSWMA's Mr. Hanneman. "We just want to secure modification of the program."
David Carroll, assistant general counsel of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, which represents about 90 percent of chemical-producing companies in the US, says, "As the regulations are now set up, they provide no incentive for industry to reuse and recycle waste.
"The industries are not being encouraged to reduce petrochemical feedstocks, reduce the quantity of wastes that ultimately have to be disposed of, or reduce energy and/or steam needs for operating a facility. The regulations wil probably act as a disincentive for developing innovative . . . technology."