Amid increasing report of toxicwaste problems around the United States, two unlikely groups -- industries that make and dump waste and states that must regulate them -- are becoming concerned over the federal government's inability to come up with national guidelines on the subject.
That concern produced an odd coalition in U.S. District Court here this week. A pair of environmental groups, a waste-industry trade organization and the state of Illinois jointly called on the court to prod the Environmental Protection Agency into action on waste.
Noting that EPA is far behind schedule in implementing the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which orders a "cradle to grave" national wast regulatory program, the coalition charged EPA with dragging its feet on implementing the act.
"States are reluctant or unable to regulate toxic-waste disposal until the federal government does so . . . The waste-disposal industry cannot construct sites and assure customers that they are scientifically and legally adequate . . . Industries with chemical wastes currently do not know what to do with them in the face of continued EPA silence and public apprehension," the coalition said in its motion to the court.
In a report highly critical of the EPA's hazardous-waste program this month, the House Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee noted that only 10 percent of some 200 million pounds of hazardous waste generated daily is disposed of in an "environmentally sound manner." EPA has said 30,000 hazardous waste dumps exist around the United States.
Leslie Dach, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, which coordinated the court action, said yesterday that the coalition is particularly upset by EPA Administrator Douglas M. Costle's admission earlier this month that the agency could not meet the latest court-ordered deadline on implementation of the act.
"EPA says they can't get going because they're swamped, but that's not the real reason," said Dach. "A large part of the problem is that they're bogged down in intra-agency squabbling and poor work on this."
Steffen Plehn, EPA's deputy assistant administrator for solid waste, acknowledged yesterday that 10 to 12 states have locked their own hazardous-waste programs into the federal agency's development schedule.
Plehn said, however, that "a full program will be on the table" within four months. "Meanwhile," he said, "we've encouraged states to keep moving ahead on their own."
George Cush, an official of the National Solid Waste Management Association, which co-sponsored the court motion this week, predicted that what EPA will actually produce will be "little more than a skeleton."
"They won't be able to tell us how to construct a secure landfill or run an incinerator and they won't be able to provide regulations on surface impoundment of hazardous waste," he said.
Cush said that EPA will have to "repropose" regulations covering those areas, a process that will require additional public hearings and a waiting period for comment that could last 18 months or more.
"It may seem odd that we're with the environmentalists on this," he said, "but our industry is one of those that needs regulation and enforcement. Otherwise we can't compete with the illegal dumper."
John Moore, an official of Illinois' Environmental Protection Agency, said his state has been hampered by the lack of a difinition of what constitutes an open dump.
"We're sitting here champing at the bit to start an open dump survey," he said. "But we don't want to reinvent the wheel when the feds have the last word on that definition."