EPA Reversal

3 minute read

Tightening up on toxic wastes

When the Environmental Protection Agency announced four weeks ago that it was suspending its ban on the burial of toxic liquids in landfill disposal areas, the outcry from environmentalists was deafening. Companies that had already invested in alternative disposal methods also lodged protests. The abrupt change in standards, said Connecticut Congressman Toby Moffett, who chairs a House subcommittee on the environment, was “ill-conceived and a danger to public health.” A congressional resolution to force the EPA to reconsider its decision quickly won support from both parties. Last week the agency reversed itself and reimposed the ban. “It was a mistake to suspend the rule,” admitted Gary Dietrich, director of the agency’s office of solid wastes. Added Agency Administrator Anne Gorsuch: “I believe the EPA should err on the side of caution.”

An outgrowth of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, the ban was put in place last November in response to widespread concerns that leaking chemical drums were contaminating thousands of disposal sites. Critics of the ban, including the Chemical Manufacturers Association, had claimed that sorting out liquid from solid toxic wastes and then getting rid of them was prohibitively expensive. Incineration, for example, costs more than $100 per bbl., vs. $25 simply to bury the stuff. EPA officials admitted last week that even before the ban went into effect, they had decided to scuttle it as “unworkable.” Edgy environmentalists think that may still happen, despite last week’s retreat by the agency. Reason: the EPA filed a separate proposal last month to replace the ban with a standard allowing barrels containing toxic liquids to make up 25% of landfill wastes. Says Khristine Hall of the Environmental Defense Fund: “Those things leak. That’s why they were banned in the first place.”

Opponents of the 25% proposal hope that the Administration, burned by the furor over the toxic-wastes ban, will move to rein in the combative EPA. Repeated samplings of public opinion, they argue, demonstrate that environmental protection is still a high priority nationwide. Indeed, pro-environment political-action committees are now working to promote candidates in more than 30 states. Some wary EPA watchers were encouraged by another step taken by the Administration last week. After resisting for a year, the White House authorized the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to require that all chemical containers carry a label describing what health hazards they pose and what to do in case of exposure. The new ruling, said OSHA’s Michael Volpe, will help protect some 9 million workers from toxic hazards in the workplace.

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