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Closing in on hazardous waste

EFFORTS of Congress to make the Environmental Protection Agency enforce the law on toxic-waste sites are about to bear fruit. Nov. 8 was the deadline by which operators of toxic-waste dumps were either to certify that they had proper monitoring wells in place and appropriate liability insurance, or to stop accepting waste. Operators closing down their sites had until Nov. 23 to file plans for safely sealing them. Violators face heavy fines and possible prison terms.

Paper lag being what it is, the results of the deadline won't be clear immediately. But it's estimated that the requirements will force the closure of roughly a third of the 1,574 so-called ``RCRA sites'' -- legitimate waste sites regulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, as distinct from the environmental disasters covered by the Superfund law.

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The dumps that will be forced to close down are the ones that should be closed down. Most of the noncomplying sites belong to small manufacturers that have dumped their wastes into lagoons out on the back forty. (In times past, they would have poured the stuff into their sewers.)

The economics of the new requirements will push some producers into having their waste dealt with by commercial handlers, who are better able to treat it. Requiring producers to pay for cleaning up after themselves will give them economic incentives to treat their waste, or to recycle it, or to figure out how to produce less of it in the first place.

This is surely the right approach. Toxic-waste pollution shouldn't be accepted as inevitable or uncontrollable.

There has been some concern that closing dumps could lead to a shortage of waste-treatment capacity. But the waste producers have certainly had time to prepare for the requirements, which have been on the books for several years now. Congress established the Nov. 8 deadline last year after becoming disgusted with EPA's foot-dragging on enforcement.

Commercial waste handlers still worry that the EPA permit-granting mill is grinding too slowly. Their own facilities, most of which meet the requirements, have only interim permits, under which they cannot expand their facilities. If there is a crunch ahead in waste-treatment capacity, it will be the result of permit lag, they say, and not the closure of smaller operators' dumps.


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