Chris Beck has this nightmare: It is October 1980 and hundreds of huge tank trucks loaded with murderous chemical wastes are clogging the highways, backed up around the country with no place to go.
No legal place to go, that is.
Oct. 1, the Environmental Protection Agency's new system to trace every drop of noxious refuse from plant gate to waste dump goes into effect. But there are nowhere near enough legal, secure disposal sites to take care of it all.
Eckhardt C. (Chris) Beck is EPA's assistant administrator for water and waste management, and the loaded trucks are his problem. "Right now, everyone wants it picked up, but no one wants it put down," he said recently.
It is being put down, though, as it has been for years, in city dumps, sanitary landfills, clay pits, abandoned mine shafts, empty lots and God knows where else nationwide. There are an estimated 120 sites that take it in now under some kind of official permit, and Beck's office estimated that 100 others sites would be needed to account legally for the 57 million tons of the stuff it is thought the nation's industries generate annually.
The numbers are fuzzy because Oct. 1 will be the first reckoning of the offal from the processes that supply polyester suits, formica desk tops, gleaming cars and silky hair. As a consuming society, Beck said, "We have no choice about dealing with this stuff."
But who wants to live next to a toxic waste disposal site? Most of the 120 existing locations are being challenged in court, and given recent history, "prospects for successful sitings in most regions of the country are dubious at best and grim at worst," an EPA report on the problem said.
"Every time we nail somebody for running a bad site, we create a public perception that none of these sites can be safe," said Doug MacMillan, acting director of EPA's hazardous waste enforcement task force. "It's a dilemma. We have to get the worst sites out of operation, but we seem to be creating a blind resistance even to well-designed sites."
In Wilsonville, Ill., population 700, a mob of residents carrying guns and sticks of dynamite threatened to blow up a hazardous waste landfill in 1977 to prevent trucks carrying waste PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) from entering. Even though analyses by the state and the EPA found the site to be a good one, with very little chance of leakage from nearly any kind of toxic waste, town officials shut the place down by diggng a flood control culvert across its acces road.
Lawsuits and countersuits are pending. In Minnesota, the state pollution control agency got a $3.7 million grant from EPA in 1975 to set up a demonstration chemical landill site that would prove the things could be safely operated.
The state picked 44 possible site and then 16 best ones, but all of them were roundly rejected by local citizen groups. In August 1978 the state had to abandon the project and returned the money to EPA.
"The industry is paying for past sins now with this total lack of public confidence," said Marchant Wentworth, legislative representative of Environmental Action, a Washington lobbying organization. "The fact is a lot of this stuff isn't safe, and these facilities have terrible operating records."
Six persons were killed in an explosion and fire at the Rollins Environmental Services chemical tank farm storage and incinerator site in Logan Towship, N.J., in 1977. The blast had nothing to do with the chemicals, but the place had been cited for odors and small violations over the years, so when it applied to burn PCBs in its incinerator early last year, violent public opposition developed. Many studies and tests later, the case is still not resolved.
As if it weren't hard enough to find new sites, many of the ones legal won't meet the new EPA standards, which will outline safety requirements pending since the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) passed in 1976.
The regulations, complex rules for depth of clay and degree of plastic permeability and other things, have been the subject of an unprecedented industry lobbying effort since they were proposed last year. Stacks of printed comments reached seven feet high at EPA offices, for millions of dollars hinge on every rule.
So much money is at stake, in fact, that many sites are expected to close rather than try to comply. "It's not that we have a capacity shortage, really, it's just that we have a cheap capacity shortage," Wentworth said.
Many approved sites are being sued for polluting. The EPA found chemical contamination of groundwater that feeds 43 wells near Flemington, N.C., and traced it to a landfill that had been approved by New Hanover County.
Although a study by Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.) and his energy resources subcommittee found that 93 percent of the wastes from 53 large industrial firms was being stored onsites, the EPA estimates that only 10 percent of all waste is being disposed of in an environmentally correct manner.
In October, sites that now exist are expected to apply for "interim status," under which they may remain open while working to prove they are not contaminating nearby groundwater. No one knows how many will shut down instead.
"The big question is not the regulations but liability," said Bill Drayton, EPA's assistant administrator for planning. Questionable sites that register now may be targets for lawsuits from cancer victims 20 years from now.
"A city or country that did everything known or thought to be safe at the time can end up being liable later," said Richard Morris of the National Association of Regional Councils. "Why should a place spend millions for the machinery now for the privilege of running that risk?"
All these problems have meant avoidance of the issue: Put it somewhere else. In the six New England states, where 4,500 companies generate more than 300 million gallons of hazardous waste yearly, "not one [state] has a secure chemical landfill, not one has a rotary kiln incinerator," the Arthur D. Little consulting firm reported to the New England Regional Commission in 1978.
"Every state has a problem with wastes already in the ground . . . and every state is adding to that problem at a significant rate," the firm said.
When New Jersey instituted a "cradle-to-grave" manifest system for its waste producers, most of the junk wound up going to Pennsylvania instead, where no such tracking method was in effect, the New Jersey Hazardous Waste Advisory Commission reported in January.
Tons of waste are routinely trucked thousands of miles to sites that will accept it. There is big money in it, and EPA hopes its new rules will generate a lot more demand for such sites.
The three biggest waste-handling firms -- Browning Ferris Industries of Houston, Waste Management Inc. of Oak Brook, Ill., and SCA Services of Boston -- together get more than $1 billion a year handling only 15 percent of the nation's wastes.
Much of their business is pure trash; only 12 percent of WMI's involves hazardous toxics. But their sites are models of careful record-keeping, segregation of chemicals that react with one another, scrupulous monitoring and state-of-the-art handling.
"The most difficult problem is developing a system for making the decision on where the waste is going to go," said Steffen Plehn of EPA's solid waste office. "We think the state level is the proper level. States level is the proper level. States that bite this bullet will have set up an essential condition for future economic development."
New Jersey's advisory commission figured that five years would be needed to assemble the necessary information: an inventory of wastes expected, their properties and kinds of treatment that would be required, the potential for recovering anything of value, the way they are now handled, plus a survey of possible sites.
The Delaware River Basin Commisson tried that and eliminated coastal flood zones, wetlands, basalt rock areas, coal mining areas, watersheds, most groundwater aquifers and their recharge zones, earthquake zones and natural areas valued for esthetic or agricultural reasons. About all that was left were areas where the groundwater is already polluted.
Environmental Action recommends a system of incentives to get towns to accept the facilities, and the idea is gaining favor, Job guarantees, direct cash payments plus percentages of the disposal fees paid to city governments plus some agreement on future liability should make siting easier, Wentworth said.
The Chemical Manufacturers Association has proposed state councils to decide sites with members of industry, local and state officials arguing it out. Other states are trying other mechanisms as they see the problem is unavoidable, EPA's Drayton said.
All this will surely raise disposal costs, which will be an incentive to reduce waste volume in the factory. There will be more recycling and more waste exchanges like one now operating in St. Louis, where one company's waste in another's raw material.
Down the line there may be product changes. "Industry tells us we demand the plastics, but nobody ever gave us a choice between cloth or vinyl chloride seat covers," said Wentworth. "Sure, the costs are passed on, but either we pay for the true cost of these chemicals now or we have a Love Canal [abandoned toxic waste dump] later. Disposal costs are part of that."