A quick flexing of corporate muscle last week played a key role in a House committee's decision to water down legislation to control hazardous chemical wastes.
Pressure by pulp, paper and chemical companies led to the success of an amendment whose sponsor, Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.)' conceded yesterday may have created a bigger loophole than he intented.
Swift's amendment to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) adopted by the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, would prevent the Enviromental Protection Agency from regulating certain hazardous materials.
Opponents of the amendment contend that it will exempt may industrial facilities whose hazardous wastes pose potentially serious threats to public health.
"I would be happier if the language were more precise," Swift said. "It is a loophole that is too broad. . . . But I'm trying to send a signal that the regulators are going too far in these things."
Swift said pulp and paper operations in his district had complained that the RCRA, as being considered by the committee, was too restrictive and it duplicated other laws.
Their complaint was quickly taken up by Union Carbide Corp., General Motors Corp. and others, who, according to one member of the committee, mounted a last-minute lobbying effort.
"We supported [the amendment] because we think it is good and necessary," said George Hanks, a Washington representative of Union Carbide. "We were agitated because we have never really conceived that RCRA applied to water."
The effect of Swift's amendment was to alter the RCRA definition of hazardous wastes by exempting solid or dissolved materials that eventually go through industrial or municipal waste-water treatment facilities.
The amendment was passed at 6:15 p.m. last Tuesday without a hearing and with only several days' advance notice. Twelve of the 23 "yes" votes were proxies given by absentees to Swift and his allies.
Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D. Tenn.), who spoke and voted against the amendment, said he thinks the "damage is substantial . . . but perhaps not as bad as the EPA fears, depending, of course, on how the companies react to it."
EPA legislative affairs chif Charles Warren said the agency, which worked against the amendment, is "very concerned" because of the "substantial loophole" it creates.
Another EPA source described the action as a severe blow to the agency's ability to prevent companies from releasing toxic waste material into the environment.
"It means the industry is unregulated for pits, ponds or lagoons that ultimately feed waste water into onsite treatment plants, even if it takes 100 years before they're ready to treat it8" he said. "That hazardous material can run off the surface or leach out and EPA cannot even take 'imminent-danger' action against it."
Recent testimony before the over-sight and investigations subcommittee of Commerce, conducting an inquiry into the nation's hazardous-waste problems, has identified seepage and runoff from chemical dumpsites as primary threats to surface and under ground water supplies.
"Many lagoons leak into groundwater with the potential to contaminate the surrounding water table," Gore said. "If EPA is prevented from looking at these situations, that contamination will, of course continue."
But Union Carbide's Hanks and Rep. Swift argued that other laws - the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act - are adequate protections.
"RCRA rules would apply to all of our faciltities, and to judge by the RCRA STANDARDS, WE WOULD BE FORCED TO GO BACK AND RETROFIT THOSE PONDS THAT HAVE BEEN SET UP TO COMPLY WITH THE OTHER LAWS," HANKS SAID.
SWIFT SAID HE AGREED THAT HAZARDOUS MATERIALS COULD SEEP INTO GROUND WATER FROM THE INDUSTRIAL HOLDING PONDS, BUT HE STILL FELT THE ORIGINAL RCRA language was too restrictive.
"EPA is one of the great perpetrators of broad-brush regulation. It raises the price of things we pay for, and all the rest," he said.
The committee-passed bill extends RCRA for one more year. It is expected to go to the House floor in a month or so, but a major clash over Swift's amendment is not expected.
EPA and its allies are counting on the Senate to force a compromise on the exemption of lagoons and ponds fromRCRA. A three-year RCRA extension was passed by the Enironment and Public Works Committee without the exemption.*