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Latest EPA rules ride herd on toxic wastes until they're safely corraled at disposal sites

Close tabs on hazardous wastes from manufacture to disposal. That is the intent of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The first phase of RCRA regulations went into effect Nov. 20, although RCRA was passed in 1976.

It took a series of environmental lawsuits to pry these regulations out of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But once disgorged, they turned out to be monumental. The 2,000 pages of regulations were described by Chris Beack, EPA assistant administrator, as the most complex set ever issued by a federal agency. He pegs the cost of implementation of RCRA at $1 billion. In addition, the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) estimates that compliance will cost their industry $2 billion.

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It is the first attempt to rectify decades of neglect. Previous to RCRA "more effort [had] gone into the regulation of restaurants and taxicabs than into establishing a safe network for waste disposal," observes Steffan Plehn, EPA's deputy assistant administrator. The complexity and cost of these efforts are, in part reflection of the size of the social problem that hazardous wastes represent.

Annual production of synthetic organic chemicals, for example, has increased from 10 pounds per person in 1940 to more than 2,000 pounds today.

At present, there are some 48,000 chemicals used incommerce. For 5,000 of these, production exceeds 1 million pounds per year. About 1,500 ingredients in pesticides, 4,000 in drugs, 5,500 in food additives, 1,200 compounds in household products, and some 2,500 chemicals and mixtures used by the plastics industry are poisonous to various degrees and can be hazardous if disposed of improperly. the IPA estimates that only 10 percent of all hazardous wastes are currently disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.

RCRA is an effort to see that responsible disposal of these toxic materials takes place. It does now deal with the problem of abandoned sites: This will be addressed by the recently passed superfund legislation. It is silent on the issue of the siting of disposal facilities.

What this newborn regulator does deal with is the manner in which hazardous wastes are transported and how disposal sites are managed. Many of the details of its structure are hazy, and experts say it is too early to assess how effective it will be. Still, those familiar with the new regulations find much to criticize.

First, RCRA sets up a system of manifests for hazardous wastes that begins with the manufacturer of the waste and follows the waste to the disposal site, where the manifest is signed and returned to the manufacturer. If the manufacturer does not receive notification that a shipment of has been properly disposed of within 45 days, it is supposed to contact the EPA, or, if authorized , the state hazardous waste office.

"EPA's manifest system is minimal," explains Peter Schneider of the New England Regional Commission. Eleven Northeastern states are implementing a manifest system that goes far beyond EPA regulations. It will be a "closed-loop tracking system" that allows the states to keep almost daily tabs on interstate and intrastate shipments of hazardous wastes.

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Another aspect of the new rules is a two-tiered classification for hazardous wastes. The EPA has published a list of particularly noxious substances that must be handled with special care. All other wastes that meet certain minimum tests for toxicity are treated similarly. All generators who produce more than a minimum amount of these substances are obliged to register with the EPA.

The new regulations also set management standards for disposal facilities, but these are strictly administrative. Operators of these facilities must either bond themselves or set up a trust fund to ensure the site is monitored for 30 years after it is closed. Also, operators must have liability insurance of $1 million per site to protect against explosions and other accidents.

Interim standards, which went into effect last month, will not require extensive changes to existing facilities. However, the EPA will apply what it terms "nonnumerical technical standards" to disposal facilities. According to the pertinent EPA statement in the Federal Register, these will require operators of sites to prove that their facilities will not endanger human health or the environment.

State hazardous waste officials criticize the new RCRA regulations as lengthy , hazy, and unclear. "The biggest problem with RCRA is its vagueness and the uncertainty it creates," says Leonard Slosky, who has worked with the National Governor's Association and the White House on hazardous waste questions.

This vagueness has been particularly hard for officials in state programs that are trying to take over the administration of RCRA. "It's impossible to get EPA officials to interpret these regulations," complains Kent Gray, head of the Utah program.

Initially, 44 states expressed the desire to be authorized under RCRA. Now a number of state officials are having reservations. "In 1979, EPA proposed regulations and 40 states went down that track. Suddenly EPA changed the program and this created extreme difficulties in many states," explains Mr. Slosky further.

"It's one of the ironies of this process that those states which took the initiatvie are having more problems that those who waited," admits Mr. Plehn.

Also, the authorization process is the one real chance that the EPA has to assure that state programs meet their standards. "They have a tendency to hold the state boy's feet over the fire," explains Alan Farkas of the consulting firm Booz, Allen, and Hamilton, who has studied hazardous waste issues extensively.

The reasons behind the EPA changes are simply. They received 375,000 pages of comments to their proposed regulations and threats of 52 separate lawsuits. In the process of making their regulations more legally defensible they also made them less specific.

Another widely voiced criticism of the RCRA regulations is the failure to set a more extensive classification of wastes by their degree of hazard. Several states have systems that do this, but the EPA argued that it was technically impossible. The CMA has proposed a system with three levels of hazard and figures that the cost of disposal in secure landfills would vary from $20,000 to

Perhaps the biggest question concerning RCRA is enforcement. Not even the EPA knows if it can enforce adequately. According to its best estimate, there are 760,000 generators of hazardous byproducts nationwide, producing 60 million tons of toxic wastes annually.

"Barring a hiring freeze, we have authorization for 1,200 man-years in the states and 900 to 1,000 in EPA," says Plehn. According to Sandra Gardebring in the EPA's Chicago office, the agency is relying heavily on people formally assigned to water and air programs. There is a severe shortage of people trained in the fields necessary for this work, so the EPA intends to retool many of its people for this new effort.

"If you can spel 'hazardous,' the EPA will probably hire you," jokes one state official.

Enforcement will be critical because the new regulations will greatly increase the cost of waste disposal at authorized sites and in, certain regions, may also increase the shortfall between the amount of waste being produced and the capacity of disposal sites. Without adequate enforcement, this situation could lead to increased illegal dumping, some experts worry.

Congress has given the EPA powerful legal teeth. Criminal penalties of up to indifference to human life." For the same situation, a corporation can be fined up to $1 million. Administratively, the EPA can fine companies up to $25,000 per day if they do not comply with RCRA regulations. Those caught shipping wastes without proper manifests are at risk of being fined $25,000 and spending one year in prison, with increasing penalties for repeat offenses.

"We think that a significant amount of the industry, when they balance a cost and risk, will do what they are supposet to," says Plehn optimistically.

Next: The dilemma of siting new hazardous waste facilities.

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