The American Chemical Society (ACS) has published new estimates of the total size of the U.S. hazardous waste problem; quoting unnamed industry sources, the ACS says the total is somewhere between 580 million tons and 2.9 billion tons produced each year. The current official estimate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is 290 million tons.
Furthermore, the ACS says the federal government really has no idea how much hazardous waste is created each year by U.S. industry and has NO WAY TO FIND OUT. This means, though the ACS does not say so, that U.S. manufacturing industries, including the chemical industry which reportedly produces 70% of all hazardous wastes, are out of control. They are out of control quite literally because there is with sufficient resources or knowledge to control them or even track their behavior.
In 1973 the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) wrote its first report to Congress on hazardous waste. At that time, the EPA estimated that American industry was producing 10 million tons of hazardous waste each year. If the latest ACS estimates are correct, it means that EPA originally underestimated the problem by somewhere between a factor of 58 and a factor of 290. In other words, the EPA's original 1973 estimate really accounted for only somewhere between 0.3% of the total waste and 1.7% of the total waste.
Even today the real size of the problem remains unknown because, "If Congress wanted to move on hazardous waste, its work would be impeded by a serious lack of comprehensive recent data. Except for some chemical industry data and estimates made by industry analysts, almost no studies have attempted to quantify the extent of the hazardous waste problem or determine what actually happens to those wastes," says a staff writer in C&EN [CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS], a weekly publication of ACS.
According to ACS, somewhere between 50% and 90% of all U.S. hazardous waste is not regulated by RCRA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which is supposed to be the nation's law for tracking wastes "from cradle to grave." The wastes not covered by RCRA were officially exempted from RCRA by EPA because the agency knew it did not have the resources to oversee their management. ACS refers to these wastes as "low hazard." Hazardous wastes that have been exempted from RCRA include cement kiln dust, utility company ash and sludge), phosphate mining wastes (often radioactive), uranium mining wastes (radioactive), other mining wastes (many of which give rise to acid leachate, damaging local streams and rivers), gas and oil drilling muds, and "some chemical process wastes."
Richard Denison of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) says there are "a number of large waste categories" that are "sort of falling through the cracks" because of the way we categorize wastes: under RCRA, wastes are hazardous or they are not, and those are the only two choices. If wastes are classified as legally "hazardous" they are regulated, and if they are "not hazardous" you can do just about anything you want with them, no matter how dangerous they may be.
An alternative would be to rank wastes according to their degree of hazard and require different levels of control for different degrees of hazard. On the face of it, this would seem to make sense. However, Joel Hirschhorn of Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), who has favored such a system in the past, now says he's not sure it could work under the present regime in Washington. "The [EPA's] meager resources devoted to enforcing the current system are not enough, and I think the whole problem would be exacerbated even more under [a degree-of-hazard ranking] proposal."
The EPA's responsibilities have increased at least fourfold since 1975. Many new laws, and amendments to existing laws, have required the agency to evaluate the toxicity of thousands of new chemicals, and to regulate them in new ways. At the same time, the agency's purchasing power in 1989 was the same as it was back in 1975. It seems obvious that under such circumstances, the EPA would not be able to do its job even if everyone in the agency were bright, well-trained and eager to nail polluters.
"These are just a few of the reasons why the grass roots environmental movement is essential to the country's well-being. The Reagan-Bush administration has sent the EPA to the locker room, and industry has the playing field all to itself, except for local environmental groups confronting them."
For the latest ACS waste estimates, see David J. Hanson,
"Hazardous Waste Management: Planning to Avoid Future Problems,"
C&EN [CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS] July 31, 1989, pgs. 9-18; the
EPA's 1973 estimates appeared in REPORT TO CONGRESS ON HAZARDOUS
WASTE DISPOSAL (Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, June 30, 1973). The crippling of EPA has been cataloged
by William Drayton, "Environment: Environmental Protection
Agency," in Mark Green and Mark Pinsky, AMERICA'S TRANSITION:
BLUEPRINTS FOR THE 1990S (New York: Democracy Project [215 Park
Avenue South, Room 1814, NY, NY 10003; (212) 674-8989], 1989),
pgs. 212-232. See also Jonathan Lash and others, A SEASON OF
SPOILS; THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION'S ATTACK ON THE ENVIRONMENT
(New York: Pantheon, 1984).
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: acs; hazardous waste statistics; capacity assurance planning; epa budget; reagan-bush; regulation; rcra; edf; ota.