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Reform US Waste Site Selection

NO society spends as much money, generates as much political anguish, or accomplishes less in implementing its hazardous waste policies than does the United States. The recent Environmental Protection Agency decision to place a moratorium on new incinerators and review the role of incineration in hazardous waste disposal is a reasonable step. But it should be expanded.

Most of the present regulations were established in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This allowed us to close hundreds of abusive facilities - but that is all. We now must focus not just on incineration, but on hazardous waste policy as a whole. For example:

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* Change the siting procedure. States currently take what is called the Ed McMahon approach. Like the Publisher's Clearinghouse representative who shows up on a doorstep to announce a family has won millions, siting officials make their decisions in secret and then announce to some lucky community that it gets to "host" a disposal facility.

Canadian provinces, notably Alberta and Manitoba, have shown that siting can be part of a larger process of examining hazardous waste options. In both provinces, contentious, top-down siting approaches were abandoned in the 1980s. Instead, provincial officials conducted hundreds of public hearings, making clear that siting would only be considered among volunteer communities. Many volunteers came forth, and central disposal facilities were approved with broad support. Moreover, siting was treated as part

of a multifaceted approach to waste policy - not a harsh take-it-or-leave-it approach.

* Make waste reduction a priority. Some states, such as Minnesota and North Carolina, have devised creative ways to encourage industries to scrutinize their manufacturing practices and decrease waste. In many instances, inexpensive measures can lead to considerable reductions in waste volumes.

"Right-to-know" mandates have forced industry to reveal the types and volumes of wastes they release each year. This has embarrassed many and encouraged them finally to look carefully at internal practices. In many cases, this leads to greater production efficiency and less pollution.

* Trash Superfund. Intended as a temporary, five-year measure to clean abandoned dumps, Superfund instead consumed billions of dollars with little result.

Fortunately, thoughtful reform proposals are in circulation. The most promising emphasize simple, feasible cleanups. These would employ a public-works funding mechanism - replacing the litigative search-and-destroy method that drains scarce resources and leaves most sites untouched.

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* Take equity seriously. Equitable distribution is sometimes viewed negatively because it implies interference with national markets. Some federal judges dislike it because of potential conflict with the commerce clause of the Constitution. But hazardous waste is not a welcome commodity. Instead, it raises questions, including the question of equity in social acceptance of burdens related to disposal.

Existing policy is largely neutral on the issue of interstate equity. At present, some states, like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and North Carolina, are only too happy to dodge the larger questions of siting, sending much of their waste to other states or nations. "Waste magnets such as Alabama, Ohio, and South Carolina are increasingly resentful of solving other states' problems. Equity is further complicated by growing evidence that proximity to disposal facilities is borne disproportionately by poor, pr edominantly minority, groups. A new waste policy must devise more equity.

To incinerate or not is an important question, and it must be addressed both by agency action and in the next round of legislation. But the nation should take advantage of the incineration moratorium to reflect on the larger question of disposing hazardous wastes.

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