Saying that her agency "has not done its job" over the last 12 years, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner on Tuesday promised sweeping changes to protect public health and the environment from harm by hazardous waste incineration.
As expected, Browner announced that the EPA will spend the next 18 months assuring that incinerators and industrial boilers now operating under interim federal approval are performing safely before considering proposals to add capacity.
"The Clinton Administration," she said, "will use every tool under the law to assure real change for the safest possible hazardous waste disposal."
The most immediate impact of the steps she outlined will be systematic EPA scrutiny of 171 industrial furnaces now operating under interim permission to determine whether they meet federal requirements for permits. Some, Browner said, will likely be shut down as a result of the review.
The roster of existing disposal facilities includes 184 hazardous waste incinerators and 171 industrial furnaces, including 31 cement kilns. Together, they process 5 million tons of hazardous waste each year.
The incinerators, specifically designed for burning hazardous waste, have been subject to federal controls since 1980, but the industrial furnaces and utility boilers have only been regulated since 1991.
In addition to reviewing the plants operating without bona fide permits, Browner said the EPA will introduce dioxin emission standards for the first time and implement more stringent controls on emissions of particulates.
The agency will also require submission of complete risk assessments before approving any future hazardous waste combustion permits, and provide more opportunities for public involvement in incineration issues.
Browner attributed the reforms in part to her longstanding interest, going back to her days as head of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection.
But the announcement came after weeks of furious controversy over a hazardous waste incinerator at East Liverpool, Ohio, where critics charge that residential communities and a nearby school are jeopardized.
The $160-million East Liverpool facility, owned by Waste Technologies Industries, a subsidiary of a Swiss steel conglomerate, is now in limited operation. Although its permit was granted by the George Bush Administration, the Clinton Administration gave final start-up approval. Environmentalists, led by Greenpeace activists, have made it a litmus test for Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who spoke strongly against the incinerator in last year's campaign.
The Ohio River Valley incinerator will not be affected by the initiative announced by Browner. It is now licensed to operate until 1995.
As a result of the policy announced Tuesday, permit applications for about 25 incinerators will be put on hold as the EPA reviews the performance of furnaces and boilers already in operation.
While the immediate reviews are to be conducted on facilities operating with interim permission, all fully licensed incinerators will eventually be scrutinized when their permits come up for renewal, typically within five to 10 years after issuance.