40th Anniversary of RCRA

Before & After RCRA



David Case - Executive Director of Environmental Technology Council

On RCRA’s 40th anniversary, we look back to 1976 when the law was passed and how far the hazardous waste industry has come since then. In 1976, gas at the pump was 59 cents a gallon.  The interest rate was 7.25%. The Dow Jones closed at 1004, and the country celebrated its 200th birthday on July 4th. Gerald Ford signed RCRA into law in October, just one month before losing to Jimmy Carter in the presidential election. There was no hazardous waste management industry at all, just a loose collection of haulers and carters that disposed of toxic waste drums wherever they could.
The early days of RCRA were a disaster. EPA created a new Office of Water and Waste to administer the law, but the office was immediately beset by scandal. Rita Lavelle, the office director, held secret meetings with companies charged with illegal disposal, lied to Congress, and ended up in prison. The EPA Administrator, Anne Gorsuch, was also investigated by Congress and eventually resigned. EPA was not able to promulgate the first set of hazardous waste regulations until 1980, and it suffered through severe budget constraints because Congress simply did not trust the agency to do its job.
RCRA was enacted to “close the loop” of environmental protection. The Clean Air Act of 1970 removed pollutants from the air, but the resulting emission control residues were dumped into municipal landfills. The Clean Water Act of 1972 removed pollutants from the nation’s waters, but the resulting wastewater sludges were shipped to landfills. The Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in early 1976, but that law focused on the front end of chemical production, not the backend of disposal. CERCLA, aka Superfund, was enacted in 1980, but that law required cleanup of orphaned disposal sites and did not address current waste disposal practices. While RCRA languished, entrepreneurs who wanted to invest in new hazardous waste technologies lobbied for reforms.

The demons were cast out, and deliverance was received with the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984. Congress completely revamped the RCRA law, enacting 72 major new provisions that ranged from the land disposal ban to design requirements for landfills and incinerators. The 1984 HSWA was four times longer than the original RCRA law, mainly because EPA technical staff, frustrated by their agency’s inaction, helped Congressional staff write the new legislation. As a result, the HSWA provisions were extraordinarily detailed (for example, landfill liner permeability must be < 1 x 10-7 cm/sec—unusual detail to include in a statute), and the new provisions were enforced through  “hammers” (for example, if EPA did not promulgate treatment standards for hazardous wastes by deadlines; land disposal was absolutely prohibited). Needless to say, the 1984 HSWA was the Magna Carta for the commercial hazardous waste management industry.

Without doubt, the most significant part of the 1984 HSWA was the land disposal ban. The “ban” is a misnomer, because the law actually required EPA to promulgate technology-based treatment standards for all hazardous wastes, and, if hazardous waste is treated to the required level, then disposal in a RCRA landfill is permitted. These treatment standards created the commercial hazardous waste management industry, banning the common practice of direct disposal of untreated wastes in landfills, and, instead, required a remarkable panoply of technologies, including incineration, fuel substitution, chemical oxidation, solvent extraction, stabilization, macroencapsulation, and any other technology that meets the required treatment levels. EPA developed these treatment standards for all hazardous wastes from 1985 to 1992, and, as each new set of standards was promulgated, the first generation of hazardous waste entrepreneurs and venture capitalists invested in new facilities, technologies, and RCRA permits to meet the demand. To quote one colorful entrepreneur at the time, “hazardous wastes no longer flowed down hill.”

The new HSWA regulations inevitably triggered lawsuits. Environmental groups argued that the new regulations were not fully protective, and industry countered that the regulations were too stringent. Perhaps the most significant lawsuit was brought by the hazardous waste industry in 1992 over the treatment standards for characteristic hazardous wastes, which simply required that the characteristic be removed by any means, including dilution. If EPA’s treatment standard of “decharacterize” had been allowed to stand, today’s market for hazardous waste services would have been depressed, because generators could simply dilute away the ignitable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic characteristic by adding water or other dilutants. Fortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington DC struck down EPA’s standard and required that the underlying hazardous constituents in characteristic wastes be treated to minimize their toxicity and mobility effectively before land disposal. In response to the court decision, EPA created the Universal Treatment Standards that govern most hazardous waste management today.

From 2000 forward, the hazardous waste industry has matured through a series of mergers, acquisitions, and consolidations. Companies had to navigate their way through a variety of challenges, including excess capacity in the industry, waste minimization, regulations that were moving targets, economic recessions, and fewer cleanup projects. Only the strong survived.  Meanwhile, EPA has also turned its attention to a maturing RCRA program, focusing on sustainable materials management and modifying the regulations for small generators, academic labs, retail stores, universal wastes, and other refinements. Perhaps the most important current initiative is the electronic manifest system known as e-manifest. Next year, the industry will be moving from a paper manifest to electronic tracking of hazardous waste shipments, which EPA estimates will save regulated entities and states over $100 million in compliance costs.

Despite a slow start, RCRA has been a highly successful environmental law, ending unprotective waste management practices, promoting new technologies, and creating a new industry for the safe and effective treatment, recycling, and disposal of hazardous wastes.

David Case
Executive Director of Environmental Technology Council

The Advent of Superfund - An Interview with Barry Jordan

Four years after President Gerald Ford signed the RCRA into law, the EPA still lacked the legal authority to clean up hazardous waste sites or respond to emergencies with dangerous chemicals. That all changed on December 11, 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or more commonly known as CERCLA, the Superfund Act.

Superfund sites were made up of the worst hazardous waste disposal grounds throughout the country. The new law gave the EPA the authority and a funding mechanism to begin extensive cleanup on these sites immediately. The law also allowed the EPA to recoup the cost of decontaminating the land by seeking funds directly from the responsible parties.

Love Canal and Superfund

One of the most notorious dumping sites, and a direct precursor to the Superfund program, is Love Canal. In the 1940’s and 50’s, the Hooker Electrochemical Company used land in Niagara Falls, NY, as a dumpsite for 21,000 tons of chemical waste. In 1953, after dumping had ceased and the site had been filled in, the local school district acquired the land to build a new school. Ultimately two schools were built, and infrastructure for residential homes was constructed for a planned development. While building the sewer walls for the private residential homes, the construction crew breached through the clay seal at the dumpsite, exposing the toxic chemicals to the ground and well water in the area.

As residents moved into the homes, none were aware that a toxic waste dumpsite lay hidden down the street, and it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that the connection was made. Many health anomalies were identified, including enlarged limbs, birth defects, and an abnormal incidence of miscarriages. As more tests were completed, the size and scope of the problem became apparent. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter allocated federal funds to the site, which was the first time federal funds were used for a situation other than a natural disaster.

Shortly thereafter, the Superfund Act was passed. All told, more then 800 families were evacuated from their homes and resettled in new locations as a result of the Love Canal incident.

The Success of Superfund

Today, the Superfund has been recognized as instrumental to accomplishing hazardous waste cleanup across the United States. Many of the worst areas were “midnight dumping sites,” places where random trucks would pull in to dump their waste at night. Determining who was responsible for cleanup costs at these locations was almost impossible, and, without proper funding, cleanup may never have occurred. But even at sites with clear owners, identifying the responsible party wasn’t always accomplished easily.  

In many cases, a landfill could have 200 to 300 companies on record as having dumped waste there. The EPA would have to find the records on each party to determine how much liability each company bore for the cleanup. Today, the EPA is still involved in determining liable parties and collecting funds to help with cleanup.

Sixty years of toxic waste mismanagement has required a herculean effort by the EPA to identify, remedy and collect restitution for the worst sites across the country. Many Superfund sites are still active today throughout the United States, and the work of the EPA is ongoing to meet the important goals of protecting natural resources and citizens.  

Barry Jordan is a retired Veolia employee whose career included 6 years with the US EPA.