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Needed: laws for industrial and municipal waste sites

A National Challenge That Keeps Piling Up

THE law that provides the basic framework for US national waste management practices is up for reauthorization. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was a historic step forward when it was passed in 1976. Each time it has been reauthorized, in 1980 and 1984, Congress has further defined and tightened its requirements. Now it is time for Congress to address major problems that remain. RCRA provides a framework for managing broad categories of waste, such as municipal waste (residential and commercial trash) and hazardous waste. ``Orphan wastes,'' however, have not been regulated under these broad classifications, and are essentially uncontrolled by federal policy. If these wastes were small in volume or benign, a few straggling orphans would not pose a threat. But the volume of these wastes is roughly 70 times larger than all the commercial and residential trash produced in the US. While 150 million tons of municipal trash is created each year, the US disposes of 11 billion tons of orphan wastes in the same time.

Orphan wastes consist of vast amounts of waste from manufacturing processes (pulp and paper, organic chemicals, textiles, etc.), from mining and oil drilling, and from other industrial operations. They do not all contain high concentrations of heavy metals or other toxic materials. But cumulatively, because of the immense volumes, the potential hazards are significant.

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These industrial wastes are now discarded in more than 200,000 waste piles, ponds, and impoundments around the US. By comparison, only about 6,500 landfills receive commercial and residential garbage. No one knows how many orphan waste sites will require special cleanup under the government's Superfund program for hazardous wastes because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not even conducted a systematic investigation of them. We have no accurate idea what they contain.

Developing regulations for these sites is a sizable challenge. Because of the diversity of industrial operations, the types of controls may be different for each of the major categories. For example, environmental threats posed by a slag heap are different from threats from chemical plant refuse. It is easy to see why EPA has deferred action.

Many of these industrial waste sites lie in vulnerable environmental settings. EPA has privately acknowledged the potentially serious environmental threats involved. But in its latest report to Congress, all the agency said about this massive volume of unregulated industrial waste was that there was ``a need for further study.''

Much more is needed. The reauthorized RCRA should require that all disposal facilities for industrial waste located in vulnerable geologic settings install a basic groundwater monitoring network. The law should also call for technical standards related to closure of these facilities, the care and maintenance of them after they are closed, financial responsibility, and corrective action, when needed. The immense volume of orphan wastes in the US should not deter the establishment of environmental standards, but should symbolize the need for moving forward.

Another major problem is the vagueness of federal rules related to municipal garbage landfills. EPA wants to give states flexibility toward achieving environmental protection goals, and has not placed meaningful requirements on the technology or approach to be used.

Unfortunately, many states have spotty records of controlling these sites, despite nearly two decades of effort. Only about half of US landfills are operating under state permits. About 25 percent may go a year or more without state inspection. Many still do not have a basic groundwater monitoring program. Much of the technological advancement in landfills has come from private operators of waste sites who have become concerned about potential liabilities.

The new legislation should end this piecemeal approach to landfill regulation and establish national minimum standards. It should send states a simple, clear message: Prevent groundwater contamination by imposing basic design, location, and operating requirements so that costly remedial actions will not be needed. EPA should spell out specific minimum requirements for siting landfills, the liners that are required, groundwater monitoring, water collection, and the final covering and maintenance of the landfill after it is closed.

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The legislation must also emphasize recycling. Americans are still once-through consumers. The federal government should encourage its agencies to purchase recycled materials, even when they are slightly more expensive than ``virgin'' products, to increase the demand for recycled goods and lead to more recycling.

By correcting these problems, the reauthorized RCRA would aim us toward a new national ethic of disposing of society's waste without endangering human health or the environment.

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