By James Bovard                  (2/18/89)
   From The Wall Street Journal, 15 February 1989, p. A14:3
        (Mr. Bovard is an adjunct  analyst for the
             Competitive Enterprise Institute.)

          [Kindly uploaded by Freeman 10602PANC]

   The Congressional Office of  Technology Assessment observed in
1986: ``In terms of economic efficiency, environmental protection
in  the  United   States  appears  more   costly  than  in  other
industrialized  nations.   The  reason  seems  to  be  not merely
greater  government  regulation but  less  flexible environmental
regulations in  the United States  that block  effective and more
economical   and  technologically   advanced   solutions.''   The
Resource Conservation  and Recovery  Act is  perhaps the clearest
example of such wasteful regulation.
   RCRA, which  is administered  by the  Environmental Protection
Agency, covers the storage and  disposal of hazardous wastes.  It
was enacted  because other  federal environmental  laws often did
not apply  to the dumping  of hazardous wastes  directly onto the
land.  (Superfund applies  to the cleanup  of abandoned hazardous
waste sites, or to hazardous  waste sites that have been declared
   RCRA was  enacted in 1976,  but the  Carter Administration and
the early Reagan administration did little to implement the law's
provisions.   In  1984,   frustrated  with  the  administration's
foot-dragging,  Congress  amended  RCRA,  mandating  far stricter
regulations on hazardous-waste disposal,  often with no regard to
the actual health threats from  the waste.  Congress is scheduled
to reauthorize RCRA this year, and  likely will make the law even
   The  EPA has  already  filed more  than  17,000 pages  of RCRA
regulations and notices in the  Federal Register, and more are on
the way -- the EPA is  still writing the regulations for the 1984
amendments.  The EPA estimates  that it will cost  a total of $20
billion in compliance costs by the time the regulations are fully
implemented  in  the  1990s.   Former  RCRA  Administrator Marcia
Williams  expects that  the  actual costs  will  be significantly
   The heavy costs RCRA imposes on  industry might be worth it if
they provided  some benefit to  human health.   But RCRA mandates
that  companies  clean up  their  factory grounds  not  to levels
protective of human health, but  to ``background levels'' -- that
is,  to levels  at  which the  chemicals  occur naturally  in the
surrounding environment.  Former EPA  General Counsel Frank Blake
observes: ``If  someone poured a  glass of  chlorinated tap water
onto the ground  at a RCRA  cleanup site, then  he could be fined
for polluting the environment.''
   The EPA sets health-based  exposure levels for many chemicals,
and, under regulatory programs other than RCRA, will certify that
a material  is no  longer hazardous  if the  material's hazardous
content  is  below  the  health  threshold.   By  contrast,  RCRA
mandates  using ``best  developed  available technology''  -- the
process that reduces the level of hazardous constituents to their
lowest possible level -- to treat wastes, even when the amount of
chemicals in those wastes  is already too small  to pose a health
   For  example, the  maximum level  at  which the  EPA considers
carbon disulfide waste water to be  no threat to health is almost
500 times  greater than  the level for  which the  EPA under RCRA
requires businesses to treat  wastes containing carbon disulfide.
The  maximum  level  for   trichlorofluoromethane  that  the  EPA
considers safe  is more than  20,000 times higher  than the level
for which  RCRA requires  treatment.  The  health-exposure danger
level for  acetone is  400 times  higher than  the best available
technology level; for phenol, 600 times higher.
   In addition, the EPA proposed  new RCRA regulations last month
that it estimates will cost $28  million a year for compliance --
but  the regulations  are expected  to result  in only  0.07 life
saved  per  year  [$400  million  per  life].   By  contrast, the
Consumer Product Safety  Commission uses a  ``value of individual
life''  estimate  of  $1  million   to  $2  million  for  judging
   In 1986 Wendy Gramm, then-head of the Office of Management and
Budget's regulatory office,  criticized proposed RCRA regulations
for presuming ``that the individual receives the maximum exposure
to the substance -- in effect [saying] that he would sink a straw
into groundwater  within the disposal  facility property boundary
and  drink almost  half a  gallon of  this [maximum-contaminated]
water  each  day for  70  years.''  (Those  regulations  were not
promulgated; instead the agency decreed even stricter standards.)
   According to former RCRA Administrator Williams, RCRA has made
voluntary hazardous waste cleanups by companies far more onerous.
If a company wishes to clean up part of its property that poses a
special threat, then it  must clean up its  entire site to RCRA's
``cleaner than clean'' specifications.   These standards were not
mandated by  Congress, but  RCRA administrators  apparently enjoy
forcing businesses to clean up, regardless of whether it serves a
useful  purpose.   (By  contrast,  Superfund  cleanups  need only
address threats to human health.)
   Before beginning such  a cleanup, the company  must also get a
RCRA permit, which  takes two to  four years, and  the paper work
can easily  cost between  $500,000 and  $1 million,  according to
several industry  experts.  Mobile waste-treatment  units are one
of the best hopes for  speedy responses to threats from hazardous
wastes; yet, their potential is  unfulfilled because of the EPA's
lethargic permitting process.
   The  quest for  statistical purity  has other  pernicious side
effects as well.  Because the  EPA, under RCRA guidelines, judges
``best technology'' largely  by measuring how  much the treatment
process reduces the level of hazardous chemicals, incineration is
routinely required.  Unfortunately, public  health risks from air
pollution are often neglected.  As  a May 1988 American Petroleum
Institute  brief noted,  ``For  several of  the  listed petroleum
wastes,  incineration was  found to  pose a  greater risk  to the
general population in close  to 50% of the  instances when it was
compared  to  land disposal  of  the untreated  waste  or surface
   Though  RCRA's  initial goal  was  to boost  recycling,  it is
impeding  recycling.  Take  the  case of  used  oil.  The  EPA is
expected to rule soon  that used oil is  a hazardous waste since,
under RCRA's guidelines, the oil  contains some slight amounts of
hazardous  constituents  and   therefore  is  put   in  the  same
regulatory category as pure dioxin.
   Gas  stations that  currently collect  used oil  for recycling
purposes could be required to  formally apply for a EPA hazardous
waste-handling permit and become  exposed to unlimited, perpetual
liability.  If the used oil  is ever involved in an environmental
problem, they  could be sued  regardless of whether  they had any
direct responsibility for the problem.
   The likely result is that  many, if not most, current handlers
of used oil will cease handling it  -- and far more used oil will
end up being dumped by individuals  onto the ground or into sewer
systems.  By  calling such used  oil hazardous, EPA  will make it
much more dangerous.
   The more we spend on cleanliness  as a moral idea, the less we
have left to spend on real health threats. In the reauthorization
process this  year, Congress should  fundamentally re-examine the
RCRA program.  There  are serious dangers  from hazardous wastes,
but it  will take  more than  sweeping, impractical  decrees from
Capitol Hill or EPA to solve the problem.

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