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Commentary : Today’s Crisis: Hazardous Waste

<i> Norma Nomura Seidel is a public affairs administrator for an environmental engineering firm and a former La Palma City Council member. </i>

In 1965, major conservation programs began after the overtaxed electrical power system in New York City collapsed and a major citywide blackout occurred. In Orange County and the rest of California, residents were urged to conserve electrical power by lowering thermostats to 68 degrees, wearing sweaters and even doing laundry at certain designated hours.

While we grumbled and made these minor modifications in our life styles, a remarkable and significant impact was measured at Southern California Edison.

In 1965, Edison had projected that 34,000 megawatts of “additions” (the combination of building plants and buying new power) would be required to meet Southern California’s energy needs for the next 20 years. However, only 9,000 megawatts were required and built. This phenomenal result was accomplished through responsible energy conservation habits.

Then in the 1970s, long lines of automobiles snaked around gas stations, and we paid $1.50 per gallon. The public knew instantly that we had an oil crisis. We curtailed our driving habits, large corporations formed van pools, and smaller, more fuel efficient automobiles flooded the marketplace. This decade is no exception. We do have a crisis. It’s hazardous waste.

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And there is no better time than now for the public education process to begin. When the private and public sectors can promote the understanding of what hazardous materials are present in our everyday lives, and how to best control their use, public fears will be lessened. So will the Nimby (Not In My Backyard) syndrome that so often accompanies waste-disposal operations.

In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. As more problems arose, however, amendments were added, and in 1986 the Superfund Amendment Reauthorization Act was approved. These two statutes make up what we know as the Superfund, which is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Currently, there is $9 billion in this trust fund that is derived from a variety of sources, the largest being $6.5 billion accumulated from a tax on all chemical and petroleum industries. The remaining $2.5 billion comes from American businesses that report a minimum of $2 million in taxable income.

Although it is corporate America that is being taxed, it is the consumer who ultimately pays for hazardous waste.

In California, the public should know that every business that handles hazardous materials is required to develop an on-site emergency response plan that must be on file with the local administering agency.

State laws have raised the consciousness level of business firms that generate hazardous waste. Many industry leaders, like Chevron Chemical Co., have begun waste-reduction and waste-management programs, which minimize waste, scale back disposal costs and thus protect our environment.

Governmental agencies can monitor businesses, but who will monitor consumers who use products that are made with toxic materials? The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment has reported that each of us is responsible for four to six pounds of hazardous waste each day--about a ton a year. How many of us are aware of the role we play in this burgeoning mass of hazardous waste? We have a choice to make. Do we use oil base or water base paint? Do we use plastic bags or paper bags, heavy duty scrub cleaner or baking soda, large cars or compact cars, fresh foods or heavily preserved frozen foods? The choice is ours, but the wrong choice leads to more hazardous waste.

Hazardous dump sites in Southern California are quickly filling. When they are full, where do we take the waste material? We spend 99% of our tax dollars for cleanup and only 1% for waste reduction. One of the major requirements of the federal regulations is that preference be given to remedies that permanently reduce the toxicity, volume and mobility of the hazardous substances themselves. Therefore, an important issue for any public education program is to address the benefits of on-site incineration. The on-site treatment is obviously far preferable to hauling garbage all over town and soon all over the nation and foreign countries in search of an acceptable dump site.

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It would be timely for cities to form toxic information committees that include community leaders, industry representatives, firefighters, city council members and county representatives.

Indeed, we have faced many challenges in the past. With public education, energy conservation rules and modification of our life styles, we overcame the energy, oil and water crises. Orange County residents can meet this new crisis with the same vigor and success.


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