“Current estimates indicate that approximately 30-35 million tons of hazardous waste are literally dumped on the ground each year. Many of these substances can blind, cripple, or kill. They can defoliate the environment, contaminate drinking water supplies, and enter the food chain under present, largely unregulated disposal practices.”

– House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce,  summarizing the need for comprehensive hazardous waste regulation prior to the passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976.

Generally speaking, two major federal laws address waste management and disposal: the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates the storage, transfer, and disposal of wastes in an effort to avoid potential threats to human health or the environment, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act , which creates a program to remediate hazardous waste sites that already pose a threat to human health or the environment.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted in 1976, as a comprehensive set of amendments to the Solid Waste Disposal Act, originally enacted in 1965. RCRA regulates two types of solid wastes, hazardous wastes, such as toxic industrial wastes, and non-hazardous wastes, such as household and commercial wastes that are collected and deposited in municipal landfills or burned in municipal incinerators.

Hazardous Waste: Under RCRA, EPA has created a “cradle-to-grave” program to track hazardous solid waste from generation to disposal, and to regulate its treatment, storage, and disposal. For the first eight years of RCRA, however, the actual regulation of the waste was sorely lacking. Thus, Congress took matters into its own hands in 1984, with sweeping amendments to RCRA that directed EPA to promulgate a regulatory program that became known colloquially (if somewhat incorrectly) as the “land ban.” Under this program, Congress divided hazardous wastes into specified categories, established a timeline for addressing the categories seratim, and declared that, as of the specified date for a given category, land disposal (landfilling) of the waste is no longer legal unless the disposer of the waste can prove either that the waste will never migrate off site or otherwise pose a risk to health or the environment, or that the waste has been pretreated according to standards set by EPA. Since these pretreatment standards – designed to significantly reduce the toxicity of the wastes disposed – can be expensive, they have helped create a financial incentive for companies to reduce their generation of hazardous waste.

Non-Hazardous Waste: RCRA also sets forth a framework for the management of non-hazardous solid wastes. EPA has, by regulation, set minimum standards for municipal solid waste landfills, and has also banned the “open dumping” of solid wastes. Perhaps the more important regulation of such wastes happens at the state and local level, with mandatory recycling and food and yard waste programs that strive to reduce the amount of waste that is landfilled or incinerated.

Citizen Enforcement: RCRA authorizes affected individuals and community groups to bring suit to compel compliance with RCRA standards where EPA and the state have failed to do so. The statute also authorizes EPA and affected citizens to bring suit to address ongoing risks from the “past or present handling, storage, treatment, transportation, oe disposal” of any solid waste – whether hazardous or non-hazardous – so long as the situation “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment.”

Read more about RCRA

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, often referenced as the federal Superfund law), was enacted in 1980, and significantly amended in 1986. Spurred to action by public health disasters like Love Canal in Niagara Falls, where a housing development was literally overrun by the hazardous waste site on which it was inadvertently built, Congress established in CERCLA a federal program to identify and prioritize actual or threatened releases of hazardous substances, to respond to and remediate those releases that pose a material risk to health or the environment, and to impose financial liability for such remediation on those who contributed to the release.

The principal focus of CERCLA has been the remediation of closed or abandoned hazardous waste disposal sites, such as leaking landfills. Although the cleanup program was initially financed by a trust fund created by general tax revenues and special taxes on the chemical and petroleum industries (hence the name “Superfund”), such federal funding has waxed and waned periodically over the past decades, causing EPA to focus on those sites where solvent responsible parties (such as hazardous waste generators) can be identified.

The law authorizes two kinds of response actions:

  • Short-term removal actions are taken to address releases or threatened releases requiring immediate response or to stabilize and assess a site pending the implementation of a more extensive cleanup plan, and may include measures to protect potentially exposed individuals, such as providing alternative housing or water supplies.
  • Long-term remedial actions are measures designed to permanently reduce the risks associated with releases or threats of releases of hazardous substances at a site. This often involves the excavation and off-site treatment of the waste, but may involve on-site treatment as well. Remedial actions may only be conducted at sites listed on EPA’s National Priorities List, and the state and local citizenry must be given an opportunity to participate in the selection of cleanup alternatives.

Read more about CERCLA