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New Approach to Toxics

August 10, 1986

California needs an entirely new system for toxic-waste disposal. Legislation awaiting action in Sacramento on Monday would push the state in the right direction by, among other things, requiring companies that generate toxic waste to take the sting out of most materials before they go into dumps; most of these are now dumped raw. Other bills would provide help for businesses and county governments wrestling with the problem. The measures, which would write into law many of the recommendations of the governor's task force on toxics, must pass, and soon.

That task force, headed by Theodore Hullar, chancellor of the University of California at Riverside, urged that "whenever possible, hazardous wastes should be detoxified and decomposed," and also urged the state to take the lead in that and other changes to reduce the environmental hazards of toxic garbage.

The new approach is spelled out in AB 2870, sponsored by Assemblyman Bruce Bronzan (D-Fresno). The Bronzan bill, now before the Senate Appropriations Committee, would require the state to promote treatment before dumping, and would require counties to share responsibility for the safe handling of hazardous waste. The measure would limit to 550,000 tons the amount of untreated waste that could be disposed of anywhere in the state. The only way that companies could stay under that limit would be to start treating--that is, drying out or recycling--75% of the toxics that they now produce. There would be no limit on the amount of treated waste that could be buried in dumps, so companies that treated their waste could still get rid of it. Counties would share the burden of handling untreated waste.

The biggest producers--133 companies produce 60% of the toxic waste--could either treat waste at their own plants or take it to treatment centers that should emerge as new business ventures. The main opposition to the bill comes not from the waste-producing companies, which recognize the need for new methods, but from the operators of existing dumps who worry that they will lose business. Smaller producers of waste would be eligible for a tax credit to help pay for treatment under AB 4377, sponsored by Assembly members Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) and Jack O'Connell (D-Carpinteria).

Once this approach is taken, counties will need help in locating treatment centers. The task force endorsed a process for selecting these sites that is outlined in AB 2948, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte). That measure, which the governor has vetoed twice, would prohibit the granting of any permits for new landfills for untreated waste, would direct counties to inventory their needs for treatment facilities, and would provide money to help their planning.

Smaller companies that generate chemical waste or other toxics may have more problems than large companies because they will not have staff experts to advise them as to which treatment systems are reliable. AB 4000, sponsored by Killea and Sen. Rebecca Morgan (R-Los Altos), would set up an independent foundation to demonstrate and assess new technologies. In that way, paint shops and dry cleaners, for example, could get objective information. The foundation also could advise insurance companies on the relative reliability of systems as a guide to deciding which could safely be insured.

California has several large hazardous-waste dumps around the state. They leak. They cannot continue to accept untreated liquid hazardous waste with any hope of meeting government safety standards. The state must switch to treating its waste and stopping toxic pollution before it starts. These bills would take California giant strides in that direction.

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