By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 13, 2008; A04
The Environmental Protection Agency issued a new regulation yesterday exempting an estimated 118,500 tons of hazardous waste annually from strict federal incineration controls, and it separately exempted factory farms from a requirement to report hazardous air pollution to the federal government.
The two rules are among dozens of regulations being issued during the final weeks of the Bush administration after lengthy internal deliberations and public controversy.
The hazardous waste exemption was proposed in June 2007 and approved by the White House three weeks after the presidential election. It allows companies that create hazardous chemical wastes in industrial processes to burn them as fuel in their own incinerators, instead of paying highly regulated incineration firms to destroy them.
Susan Bodine, EPA's assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said in a prepared statement that "this action recognizes that [such wastes] . . . should be managed as a commodity valued for its energy content." She said the rule eliminates unnecessary regulation and promotes "energy recovery" without sacrificing human health or the environment.
The rule expands a previous EPA exemption for wastes that are chemically identical to fossil fuels so that it covers other wastes that produce similar emissions. James Berlow, director of the EPA's hazardous waste minimization and management division, said that an estimated 34 affected companies will be subject to high penalties if the toxic compounds are not fully destroyed. An agency spokeswoman said it would affect less than one percent of all hazardous wastes.
But Ben Dunham, associate legislative counsel for the nonprofit advocacy group Earthjustice, said that "everything about this rule-making was flawed," including "the logic that says, 'if you can burn it, it's not a hazardous waste.' " He said it would allow firms with poor environmental records "to simply throw their hazardous waste in the company boiler" and burn it without strict monitoring, sometimes in populated areas.
The regulation covering factory farms, which exempts them from a federal reporting requirement first enacted 28 years ago, was proposed last December and approved by the White House on Thursday. But Barry Breen, the EPA's deputy assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, noted that the agency's original proposal -- which would also have exempted factory farms from reporting to state and local authorities -- was modified to cover only reports to the EPA.
Breen said that forcing farms to tell the EPA about emissions of ammonia or hydrogen sulfide from manure pits or other farm operations was unnecessary because "there's no way our responders can deal with that. We deal with train wrecks, explosions, fires in buildings. We just don't need the notice" from farms.
Local authorities said, however, that they still wanted to know about the sources of emissions that might cause respiratory problems or deaths, and their views prevailed.