Once, the amount of waste produced in the United States was small and its impact on the environment was viewed as relatively minor. Times have changed. With the industrial revolution in the late 1800s, the country began to experience unparalleled growth. New products were developed, and the consumer was offered an ever-expanding array of material goods.
This growth continued through the early twentieth century and accelerated after World War II when the nation's industrial base, strengthened by war, turned its energy toward domestic production. The results of growth, however, were not all positive. While the country produced more goods and prospered economically, it also generated more waste, both hazardous and nonhazardous. For example, at the end of World War II, U.S. industry was generating roughly 500,000 metric tons of hazardous waste per year. This amount continued to increase over the next 50 years. A national survey conducted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) in 1996 estimated that 279 million metric tons of hazardous waste were generated nationwide in 1995, more than 500-fold.
This phenomenal growth in waste production was not mirrored by advancements in the field of waste management. Much of the waste produced entered the environment, where it often posed a serious threat to ecological systems and public health. Some of the threats posed by the mismanagement of hazardous waste are obvious. Reports of chemical accidents or spills of hazardous waste that close highways, or illegal midnight dumping that contaminates property, are familiar. Yet, even when hazardous waste is managed or disposed of in a careful manner, it may still pose a serious threat to human health and the environment. For example, toxic hazardous wastes can leak from a poorly constructed or improperly maintained hazardous waste landfill. Such waste contamination can severely, and sometimes irreversibly, pollute groundwater, the primary source of drinking water for half the nation.
Ground water pollution is not the only problem posed by hazardous waste mismanagement. The improper disposal of hazardous waste has polluted streams, rivers, lakes, and other surface waters, killing aquatic life, destroying wildlife, and stripping areas of vegetation. In other cases, careless waste disposal has been linked to respiratory illnesses, skin diseases (including skin cancer), and elevated levels of toxic materials in the blood and tissue of humans and domestic livestock. In still other cases, the mismanagement of hazardous waste has resulted in fires, explosions, or the generation of toxic gases that have killed or seriously injured workers and firefighters.
Hazardous waste is generated from many sources, ranging from industrial manufacturing process wastes, to batteries, to fluorescent light bulbs. Hazardous waste may come in many forms, including liquids, solids, gases, and sludges. To cover this wide range, U.S. EPA has developed a system to identify specific substances known to be hazardous and provide objective criteria for including other materials in this universe. The regulations contain guidelines for determining what exactly is a waste (called a solid waste) and what is excluded from the hazardous waste regulations, even though it otherwise is a solid and hazardous waste. Finally, to promote recycling and the reduction of the amount of waste entering the system, U.S. EPA provides exemptions for certain wastes when they are recycled in certain ways.
In the mid-1970s, it became clear to Congress and the American people that action had to be taken to ensure that the huge volumes of municipal and industrial solid waste, including hazardous waste generated nationwide, were managed properly. This realization began the process that resulted in the passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) as an amendment to the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) in 1976. The goals set by RCRA1 are
1. To protect human health and the environment from the hazards posed by waste disposal.
2. To conserve energy and natural resources through waste recycling and recovery.
3. To reduce as expeditiously as possible the amount of waste generated, including hazardous waste.
Since 1980, under RCRA Subtitle C, U.S. EPA has developed a comprehensive program to ensure that hazardous waste is managed safely: from the moment it is generated; while it is transported, treated, or stored; until the moment it is finally disposed (Figure 12.1). This cradle-to-grave management system establishes requirements for each of the following:
1. Hazardous waste identification: To facilitate the proper identification and classification of hazardous waste, RCRA begins with hazardous waste identification procedures.
2. Hazardous waste recycling and universal wastes: To provide for the safe recycling of hazardous wastes and facilitate the management of commonly recycled materials, RCRA includes provisions for hazardous waste recycling and universal wastes.
3. Hazardous waste generators: To ensure proper and safe waste management, the RCRA regulations provide management standards for those facilities that produce hazardous waste and provide reduced regulations for facilities that produce less waste.
4. Hazardous waste transporters: To govern the transport of hazardous waste between management facilities, RCRA regulates hazardous waste transporters.
5. Treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs): To fully protect human health and the environment from hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal, the TSDF requirements establish generic facility management standards, specific provisions governing hazardous waste management units, and additional precautions designed to protect soil, ground water, and air resources.
6. Land disposal restrictions (LDR): To reduce the hazards posed by permanently land-disposed waste, this program requires effective and expeditious hazardous waste treatment.
7. Combustion: To minimize the hazards posed by the burning of hazardous waste, RCRA imposes strict standards on units conducting such combustion.
8. Permitting: To ensure that only facilities meeting the TSDF standards are treating, storing, and disposing of hazardous waste and to provide each TSDF with a record of the specific requirements applicable to each part of its operation, RCRA requires owners and operators of these facilities to obtain a permit.
9. Corrective action: Since hazardous waste management may result in spills or releases into the environment, the corrective action program is designed to guide the cleanup of any contaminated air, groundwater, or soil resulting from such management.
10. Enforcement: To ensure that RCRA-regulated facilities, from generators to TSDFs, comply with these regulations, RCRA provides U.S. EPA with the authority to enforce provisions of the Act.
11. State authorization: To empower states and make enforcement more efficient, RCRA also allows U.S. EPA to authorize state governments to administer various parts of the RCRA program.
Although RCRA creates the framework for the proper management of hazardous and nonhaz-ardous solid waste, it does not address the problems of hazardous waste found at inactive or abandoned sites or those resulting from spills that require emergency response. These problems are addressed by a different act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly called Superfund, which was enacted in 1980.
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