Hazardous waste was first addressed in federal law in 1965 with the passage of the Solid Waste Disposal Act, which sought to segregate hazardous materials from other solid wastes to prevent soil and groundwater contamination. In 1976, after PCBs—chemicals used in the insulation of electrical equipment—were found to cause cancer, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act to regulate the use, management, and disposal of PCBs and certain other toxic substances.
In 1976, however, the United States began more comprehensively regulating the treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous wastes with the passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). In the 1984 reauthorization of RCRA, Congress added the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments. The RCRA basically sets up a cradle-to-grave system of record keeping for hazardous wastes and regulates the manner in which they should be disposed. Under the law, hazardous wastes— whether solid, liquid, or gas—must be tracked from the time they are generated until their final disposal.
The RCRA divides hazardous wastes into three categories. The first category covers materials subject to full hazardous waste regulations. These include materials that contain one of thirty-nine carcinogenic substances, catch fire easily (such as gasoline, solvents, and paints), could explode or release toxic fumes (such as acids, ammonia, chlorine bleach), or are capable of corroding metal containers such as tanks, drums, and barrels (such as industrial cleaning agents and oven and drain cleaners). A second
category applies to materials that are subject to less stringent requirements, such as oil, batteries, fluorescent lightbulbs, pesticides, and thermostats (materials containing mercury).
Category three under the RCRA refers to materials that are exempted from its solid waste definition. Exempted materials, or materials not included in the law's definition of hazardous wastes, include household wastes, domestic sewage, wastes that pass through a publicly owned treatment plant, irrigation water, industrial wastes recycled as fertilizers, mining wastes that are left in the ground, recycled sulfuric acid, wastes from the burning of coal or other fossil fuels, and chromium wastes. In addition, some industrial discharges are otherwise regulated by the Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act, radioactive wastes are specifically controlled by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, and medical wastes are governed by the Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988.
The RCRA requires companies that generate hazardous wastes to dispose of them in special ways to decrease their health and environmental risks. Today about 60 percent of all hazardous industrial waste in the United States is disposed of using a method called deep well injection. This method injects liquid wastes into a well located in a type of nonporous rock formation that keeps the waste isolated from groundwater and surface water. Other hazardous wastes are disposed of using specially designed landfills and high-temperature incinerators.
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