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Hazards Seen in New Plan to Ease Toxic Waste Rules : Proposal for self-policing by companies seeking to dispose of chemicals in landfills poses environmental risks, critics say.


WASHINGTON — Four years after criticism by presidential candidate Bill Clinton led the Bush administration to withdraw a plan relaxing controls of hazardous wastes, the Environmental Protection Agency is quietly developing a similar program.

Critics say the new effort, now under the direction of the Clinton-run EPA, is equally flawed.

Like the 1992 plan that never went into effect, the little-noticed proposal relies on self-policing by companies seeking to dispose of potentially dangerous chemicals in ordinary landfills. It puts ground and surface water, soil and air at potential risk of contamination, the critics argue.

The issue of how to handle hazardous waste centers on correcting defects in regulations that have been in effect since the Carter presidency. Scientific understanding of chemical hazards has changed over the years--some chemicals are safer at higher concentrations than once thought; others are more dangerous. But the regulatory process so far has proved unable to adjust to the new information, an example of how political and other concerns can often complicate efforts to refine government rules.

"Pretty much everyone agrees there is [both] significant overregulation and significant underregulation" of hazardous waste disposal, said Karen Florini, a senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, who prepared a 100-page criticism of the Bush administration's proposal four years ago. The new proposal "is about trying to fix some of the overregulation. I am concerned they aren't doing enough to deal with the underregulation," Florini said.

EPA officials, who are under a court order to develop less-restrictive regulations, said they are continuing to refine their proposal. "What we're trying to do is develop a rule that meets the legal requirement and is more protective of public health" than the '92 plan, said Loretta Ucelli, an EPA assistant director.

Much of the opposition to the proposed new rules has come from the operators of hazardous-waste facilities, generally landfills and incinerators that each year handle 5 million tons of hazardous waste.

Relaxed rules would allow chemical companies, metal works and other industrial processors to dispose of effluent and solid waste in municipal or regional landfills instead of requiring them to use the more expensive, specially designed facilities.

As a result, the hazardous-waste treatment and storage facilities could lose as much as 30% of their business, said Rod Bartchy, vice president of Envirosafe, a Pennsylvania company that operates sites in Oregon and Ohio.

"Hazardous waste goes to a very select group of facilities," he said.

But beyond the business interests, environmental activists are also skeptical about the government's proposal.

The administration's proposal contains "some of the same fundamental flaws" as the Bush administration's 1992 plan, Florini said. That plan, she asserted, could have been characterized as "throw the baby out with the bathwater and tear out the central plumbing."

"This one is restricted to throwing the baby out," she said.

Hazardous wastes differ from ordinary garbage or from the detritus of many manufacturing processes. If handled improperly, they can find their way into the environment, unleashing toxic chemicals into the air, water, soil and food chain, and from there into the human body.

Such wastes can be found in the sludge cooked up by electroplating operations or from oil refining. They are in spent solvents and the effluent of wood treatment plants, in dyes and pigments, and in the runoff from aluminum processing.

The wastes include a toxic stew of such regulated chemicals as aldrin, a pesticide and lead and zinc. They are such well-known poisons as arsenic and cyanide, and such uncommonly known chemicals as silvex, a herbicide.

The debate over the regulations dates to 1980, when Shell Oil Co. sued the EPA on the grounds that its rules for disposing of hazardous wastes were unnecessarily stringent. Under those rules, any waste mixed with or derived from a substance that is considered hazardous was subject to special treatment.

The 1980 rules remained in effect as the case made its way through various courts. In December 1991, a federal court ruled that the EPA had erred in developing its original hazardous waste definition and putting it into place without sufficient notice or opportunity for public comment.

That ruling led to the Bush administration's plan, which was unveiled in April 1992. That plan was propelled, to some degree, by Bush's overall effort to reduce the burden that government regulations placed on businesses. But the plan was withdrawn on Sept. 28, 1992, after it drew sharp criticism from, among others, Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore.

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