Proactive Government Steps in Improving U.S. Industrial Hazardous Waste Management

Article excerpt

In the last 10-15 years society has become increasingly aware of the pervasive chemical contamination of its ground water and soil and of the associated damage caused by such contamination. Most of the problems can be traced to improper hazardous waste management. Several forces have put pressure on the business community to solve these current problems and prevent their reoccurrence. These forces derive from the actions of the waste generator's employees, the general public, the government and the courts.

Employees, concerned about the safety implications of working in contaminated areas, have pushed for, and often received, specific measures to improve occupational health and safety. For example, "right-to-know" laws and additional training have generally improved the workplace environment. In contrast, the general public, often armed with exaggerated or inaccurate information, has called for impractical idyllic solutions or for regulations that place an undue burden on business. Faced with this environment, many firms decided to wait for more coherent public opinions to emerge. This long-awaited emergence may now be underway as the general public focuses less on calls for new regulation and more on using the market mechanism to expedite change. Because purchasing decisions are beginning to be based on the environmental performance of the manufacturer, studying which actions are rewarded in the marketplace should yield a true picture of current attitudes and opinions.

Federal, state and local governments have reacted to the problems with the enactment of an impressively large array of laws. These laws were often drafted quickly, after a minimal amount of problem analysis and consultation with industry and enforcement agencies-in an attempt to appease an uneasy electorate. This "process" often resulted in unenforceable, redundant and confusing laws.

The courts have responded by enforcing the strict liability clauses found in many hazardous waste regulations. It is estimated that Superfund liability could approach $500 billion by the year 2000. In addition, courts recently started levying criminal penalties on the managers of firms found to be in serious violation of environmental laws. In 1989, for example, there were 107 such convictions, resulting in $12.75 million in fines and 53 years in jail sentences.

Considering the strength of these forces, proper hazardous waste management must be considered essential for the long-term survival and profitability of American industry. Industry, however, has been unwilling or unable to implement a viable system. A recent survey of a large number of industrial firms showed that only 9 percent had risk management tools in place. The threat of crippling environmental liabilities, coupled with waste cleanup and disposal costs that have increased tenfold in the last decade, mandates a reform in current hazardous waste management techniques.

This article addresses issues relevant to the design and implementation of an effective and efficient hazardous waste management system, starting with a description of relevant regulations.

Following will be an assessment of stakeholder actions that have helped perpetuate the current problems. Results of empirical research into attitude similarities and differences between knowledgeable industry professionals and the general public is then presented. Afterward, a discussion of current techniques is presented. Lastly, a workable integrated solution, and ideas for the future, are proposed.

SURVEY OF LITERATURE

Hazardous wastes are defined by federal regulations as chemical wastes that can be ignited, are corrosive, reactive or appear on a list of toxic substances. The relevant federal regulations dealing with these wastes can be broken down into four categories. The first category, which is relatively narrow in scope, deals with worker and workplace hazardous waste safety standards. The major regulation in this area is the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's (OSHA's) Hazard Communication Standard. …