During the past year, the Environmental Protection Agency has withdrawn, removed, suspended or reconsidered most of the regulatory framework developed by the Carter administration to control dumping of hazardous wastes in landfills.
EPA argues that the rules were too costly and burdensome to industry. Environmentalists say the agency has abandoned its efforts to prevent future Love Canals.
"EPA actions represent a wholesale retreat of eliminating wholesale dumping in landfills. There is no such thing as a secure landfill," said Rep. James Florio (D-N.J.), chairman of the House commerce, transportation and tourism subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over this issue.
EPA critics tick off a list of agency actions that they say are part of this retreat:
* Lifting the ban on disposal of liquids in hazardous-waste landfills for 90 days while EPA develops weaker standards;
* Proposing to eliminate a new requirement that hazardous-waste disposal facilities carry insurance to cover damages or injuries caused by such things as explosions, fires or seeping toxic chemicals;
* Proposing to eliminate quarterly reports about the groundwater under hazardous-waste facilities, except when the facility operator finds that the water contains more hazardous substances than allowed by law;
* Proposing to no longer require disposal-facility operators to outline a plan of action in case a dangerous amount of hazardous materials seeps from the landfill.
* Failing to meet a court-imposed deadline of Feb. 1, 1982, for landfill regulations originally due by April, 1978. It discarded the ones drawn up by the Carter EPA and asked for an additional two years. The court turned that down, but gave EPA a bit more time. Gary N. Dietrich, director of EPA's office of solid waste, said the proposal should be ready in four to six weeks.
"There is a very vivid shift from the Carter administration," said Khristine Hall, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. "During the Carter administration, the commitment was there. It's exactly the opposite now. Any commitment now is with regard to loosening regulations."
Dietrich denied the charge, noting that he worked on the same program during the Carter administration. "I have received no pressure to relax regulation for economic reasons," he said. "The regulations that are on the street have been amended to take care of serious flaws. They tended to be deregulatory in nature but that's only because the original rule was overreaching."
Over the past decade, Love Canal in New York, the Valley of the Drums in Kentucky and other infamous dumpsites focused public attention on the problems associated with putting hazardous waste in barrels and dumping them in landfills. To prevent future crises, Congress directed EPA in 1976 to develop standards for landfills that would keep toxic substances out of the environment, particularly groundwater.
Environmentalists agree that some landfill operators have implemented modern control techniques, but they argue that no landfill can be made leakproof and note that states like California are moving to impose limits even stricter than the federal rules.
Florio said EPA is, among other things, "undoing the fledgling industry opportunity . . . for the safe disposal of waste." He said the previous stringent proposals "changed the economic equation" and made it "more economically viable to develop new disposal methods. As long as cheap landfills are available, no one is going to invest in alternate" methods.
Dietrich countered that EPA's legal responsiblity is to protect human health and the environment, not to focus on the economic impact of its policies.
On Monday the Hazardous Waste Treatment Council, representing three firms working on advanced disposal methods, went to court to try to stop EPA from lifting the ban on dumping liquids in the landfills. The firms--Ensco Inc. of El Dorado, Ark., SCA Chemical Services Co. of Boston, and Rollins Environmental Services of Wilmington, Del.--invested considerable resources in anticipation of the tough regs.
Liquids in landfills cause barrels to corrode and can seep easily into the ground and air. Dietrich said the decision to lift the ban was reached during negotiations with companies that were suing EPA on grounds that the agency had overstepped its authority in several areas of hazardous-waste regulation. Dietrich said EPA normally tries to settle out of court because "often times these are extremely complex issues and the court doesn't normally do a good job on complex technical issues."
The ban on liquids originally went into effect Nov. 19, 1981, but by that time, the hazardous-waste generators knew that it would be lifted temporarily during the winter. Most have been storing their waste to wait for the grace period, according to EPA spokeswoman Robin Woods.
Meanwhile, EPA has modified a proposal that would have allowed only 10 percent of the waste in a landfill to be in liquid form. Facility operators had argued that it would be too dangerous for them to open the containers to measure the liquid. Now the agency is proposing to allow each landfill to set aside up to 25 percent of its areas for containers with liquids.
EPA agrees that liquids may seep out and that containers may corrode--the original reason for banning liquids. But it says the seepage would be so slow and dispersed that it would not create any environmental or health problems.