Rules May Force a Third of Toxic Dumps to Close
One-third of the nation’s toxic-waste disposal sites may be forced to close this week because they cannot meet four-year-old federal environmental regulations. Dozens of others are racing furiously to meet this Friday’s deadline.
“It’s frantic out there,” said Gene Lucero, the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief toxic waste enforcer.
Most of the dumps forced to close, Lucero said, will be small landfills or toxic ponds on factory grounds. Chemical plants and other factories that generate substantial quantities of deadly wastes are expected to store them above ground temporarily and eventually to ship them to commercial landfills.
Most Lethal Garbage
Federal officials, environmentalists and industry officials expect the regulations eventually to trigger a shift away from increasingly expensive landfills as repositories for the nation’s most lethal garbage. Instead, they expect industry to turn more frequently toward either treating its hazardous wastes before disposing of them or adopting manufacturing techniques that reduce the generation of toxic wastes.
But for the near term, Lucero said, the EPA will be on the alert for an increase in illegal dumping by companies unable to meet the regulations. A handful of industries may have to stop production temporarily. And EPA officials expect last-minute legal attempts by industry to halt implementation of at least some of the requirements.
Regardless of the outcome, Friday will mark a turning point in the federal regulation of toxic waste disposal. Starting then, dump operators will be required to certify that they are monitoring nearby underground water for pollution and that they have liability insurance or enough assets to pay for future environmental damages.
“Nov. 8 is really a significant day,” said Linda Greer, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “It marks progress on a thing that has been so intractable for so long.”
Congress enacted the new requirements in 1981 to protect the nation’s ground water from deadly pollutants leaking from waste dumps. But dump operators widely ignored them, and the EPA left them largely unenforced.
So a year ago, Congress set the Nov. 8 deadline for compliance--and now, amid some skepticism from both environmentalists and industry, the EPA is promising vigorous enforcement.
Lucero estimates that 500 of the nation’s 1,575 land disposal sites will be unable to comply with the regulations. Most of the country’s 58 commercial toxic landfills, which accept wastes from whoever pays the price, will probably meet the requirements, Lucero said.
Many Facilities to Close
In California, regional EPA officials said that about half of the state’s 100 regulated land disposal facilities will close, though they said the Friday deadline is not solely responsible. “In some cases, it’s more like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Philip Bobel, chief of the waste management program in the EPA’s San Francisco office.
Environmentalists and industry officials contend that the EPA is so ill-informed about the nation’s toxic waste sites and inspects them so infrequently that many facilities will continue to operate even though they do not meet the EPA regulations.
John Chambers, a Texas attorney for Conoco Inc., predicts that several months will pass before many of the facilities close.
‘Will Wait for Agency’
“I’m confident, if I know anything about commercial operations, that these guys are either going to say they don’t know or they weren’t aware,” Chambers said. “And they will wait for the agency to take some sort of enforcement action to shut them down.”
Chambers said his company expects to comply with the regulations.
Ben Goldman, a project director at the New York-based Council on Economic Priorities, estimates that it will take the EPA up to 10 years to inspect just the commercial facilities for compliance.
The EPA’s Lucero insisted that the agency can inspect all of the dumps in two years. He said that the agency has a list of facilities already known to lack insurance and ground-water monitoring wells and that, if any of those firms certify that they have complied with the regulations, EPA inspectors will sweep down within weeks to investigate.
“If there is evidence that their certification is clearly an incorrect statement, they may be subject to any number of unsavory results,” including criminal penalties, Lucero said. “The problem is there are going to be a number of gray cases.”
Drilling of Wells
If investigators cannot prove that a firm intentionally filed a false certification of compliance, he said, the EPA would merely set a new deadline for it to drill adequate monitoring wells.
The nation’s commercial waste companies contend that they already comply with the requirement that they drill wells that can monitor the quality of the ground water near their dumps. Charles Johnson, a technical director for the National Solid Waste Management Assn., which represents operators of about 40 commercial sites, said most of the organization’s members plan to certify that they are in compliance.
“I don’t think the companies will have any problems,” Johnson said. “We’ll see what the EPA says. They could agree with us or not agree with us.”
It is the dumps on factory grounds that are more likely not to monitor nearby ground water for pollution. Environmentalists say many dump operators in this category have simply refused to drill monitoring wells.
The second regulation--that dump operators carry liability insurance if they cannot prove their ability to meet future cleanup costs--has proved to be a burden for smaller dump operators unable to provide their own insurance. EPA attorney Sylvia Lowrance said liability insurance “dried up” as a result of recent court decisions holding insurance companies liable for damage caused not only by accidents but also by the long-term poisoning of underground water supplies from leaking dumps.
“It’s really going to require some congressional action if the problem is to be solved,” Lowrance said. Indeed, some members of Congress are discussing the possibility of extending the deadline for liability insurance for firms that tried to obtain it but failed.
In the face of the environmental regulations, some producers of toxic wastes are already moving toward treating their wastes before disposing of them. Southern Pacific Transportation Co. of San Francisco recently completed a waste-water treatment system at its rail-yard maintenance site in Roseville and closed a pond in which detergents and other hazardous materials were dumped.
System ‘Not the Best’
“With all this new regulation, it’s just not the best sort of system to use these days,” said Mark Ransom, a senior environmental engineer for the company. “And the pond that we had there would never have met today’s guidelines.”
Ransom said the firm’s only alternative was to collect the wastes and ship them to a commercial site. “The way the costs have gone up and the way the regulations are, it isn’t even an alternative worth considering,” he said.
Chevron Chemical Co., whose waste disposal site in Richmond was found earlier this year to be out of compliance with the EPA regulations, hopes to follow a different route. The company already has improved its ground-water monitoring system, a spokesman said, and it hopes eventually to minimize toxic waste production by changing its manufacturing techniques.
Hardship for Toolmaker
For Seekong Manufacturing, a toolmaking firm in Massachussetts, the Friday deadline has already created an economic hardship. In anticipation that the regulations would be enforced, Frederick Dobras, vice president of the firm, laid off 10 of his 50 workers and discontinued electroplating in his factory.
Since 1947, Dobras said, the family-owned firm has dumped metal wastes into a pond 20 feet in diameter on the factory grounds. “In the ‘40s and ‘50s, there wasn’t any concern at all,” he said. “It wasn’t illegal. It wasn’t even bad hygiene.”
In April, Dobras and other industry representatives met with Massachusetts officials to be briefed on the deadline. “You couldn’t have had a quieter bunch,” he said. “Everybody in the regulated community has just had it.”
After years of dumping metal wastes in the pond, Dobras’ firm could not obtain liability insurance to protect against possible lawsuits alleging environmental damages from the dump or seeking recovery of government-imposed cleanup costs.
“It was like asking for insurance against an accident that has already happened,” Dobras said.
So he sold his electroplating equipment and now contracts with a Rhode Island vendor for plating. Dobras says his vendor can operate because he dumps his wastes into the town sewer. “The state of Rhode Island is really behind the times,” Dobras said.