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#238 - New Front In The Waste Wars -- Part 1: The Regulatory-Industrial Complex, 18-Jun-1991

The partnership between government and the waste "management" industry
continues to flourish. Industry produced 345 million tons of legally-
hazardous waste in 1990 [1] and government takes the position that
government has an obligation to provide waste disposal service for all
those toxins. This means government has got to find citizens who are
willing to accept massive amounts of poisons dumped or burned in their
backyards. Willing citizens are harder and harder to find, so
government agents now employ special methods of persuasion to try to
convince skeptics that waste disposal is "safe," meaning that the
"risks" are "acceptable." Simply holding public hearings (which they
glorified with the title "public participation" in the '80s) didn't do
the trick, so an artful technique called "risk assessment" was
developed. The explicit aim of risk assessment is to convince people
that some number of citizens must be killed each year to maintain a
national lifestyle based on necessities like Saran Wrap, throw-away
cameras and lawns without dandelions.

When persuasion fails, government simply tries to bully people into
accepting waste disposal facilities. For example, the people of
Jacksonville, Arkansas, have voted on three occasions not to allow
government and industry to erect an incinerator in the middle of a
residential area in their town for the purpose of burning highly-toxic
chemical warfare wastes--but the regulatory-industrial complex has
evidently decided that it needs to set a precedent burning such wastes
in human communities, so EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) is
pressing ahead despite welljustified fears and opposition by local

With municipal solid waste (msw), the story is the same. Americans
produced an estimated 170 million tons of msw in 1990,[3] much of it
toxic and dangerous though not legally "hazardous." Increasingly,
citizens are opposing landfills and incinerators in favor of recycling
and waste reduction. But government takes the position that government
has an obligation to provide waste disposal facilities. Why?

The waste "management" industry is one that can be readily monopolized
by the people who own landfills and incinerators; the owners of such
facilities can simply refuse to accept wastes from competitive haulers.
Thus competition can be readily eliminated and waste "management" firms
can charge higher and higher prices for their services. In contrast,
recycling, and waste reduction are not easily monopolized by a few
large firms. Any enterprising citizen can get into the recycling
business and, by developing a better mousetrap, can grab a share of the

The federal government has formed an unspoken but obvious alliance with
the giant waste haulers-those who own the most landfills and all of the
incinerators. Many of the corporate officers in these firms used to be
government officials themselves--they wrote the regulations that
created the modern waste "management" industry. Many of today's top
government officials--the ones who make policy--can look forward to
highly-paid jobs with waste "management" firms when they retire from
government service. This phenomenon is now so common that it has been
given a special name--the "revolving door." The waste "management"
firms also make generous contributions to election campaigns, so one
hand washes the other. It is therefore not surprising that government
has decided it has an obligation to provide waste disposal locations--
landfills and incinerators--whether local citizens want them or not.
The alternative--waste reduction--is inconvenient for the producers of
waste and financial death for the waste "management" industry.

Perhaps most importantly, industry aggressively opposes any serious
efforts by government to force waste reduction because this represents
government intrusion into manufacturing processes. For 200 years
American industry has guarded its right to make all manufacturing
decisions, regardless of the consequences for the rest of society. Few
politicians are willing to risk the wrath of powerful industrial
leaders, so government shies away from policies that would force waste
reduction and, instead, forms alliances with industry to find sites for
more dumps and incinerators.

Given the kinds of waste disposal technologies that are available today
(landfills, injection wells, and incinerators), only a fool would
willingly accept a waste disposal facility in his or her backyard. Even
risk assessment enthusiasts admit that the closer you are to such a
facility the greater the chance that you will be among the unlucky
souls selected at random to die in the name of progress. There are a
few communities where political leadership is in such short supply that
elected officials (often with a little help from their friends in the
waste disposal industry) are embracing proposals for new dumps and
incinerators. However, even in these communities, many people know in
their bones waste disposal is always dirty and dangerous, and they are
fighting it.

Traditionally, waste disposal has been dirty. However, during the last
50 years, with the rise of the American chemical industry and the
development of a modern lifestyle based on thousands of toxic
compounds, waste disposal has become not only dirty but also truly

The traditional place to put waste dumps and incinerators was "on the
other side of the tracks"--in the part of town where African-Americans,
Hispanics Asian-Americans, and poor whites lived. This pattern has now
been thoroughly documented in a new book[4] by Robert D. Bullard,
Dumping in Dixie--a study of "the imposition of all types of toxins on
black communities through the siting of garbage dumps, hazardous-waste
landfills, incinerators, smelter operations, paper mills, chemical
plants, and a host of other polluting industries."

As African-American and Hispanic communities have organized themselves
to oppose the regulatory-industrial complex, the grass-roots movement
for environmental justice has become broader, deeper, more diverse, and
much more powerful. It has become difficult for industry and its
acolytes in government to find any communities willing to sacrifice
their quality of life and the lives of their citizens just so Dow and
DuPont can continue making exotic substitutes for traditional materials
(glass, iron, cotton, wool, and wood).

The federal government has therefore now opened up a new front in the
waste wars. Uncle Sam is working hand-in-glove with dozens of waste
companies eager to site dumps and incinerators on land belonging to
native peoples, out in Indian Country. Details next week.

--Peter Montague


[1] Monica P. Muniak and others, A COMPETITIVE ANALYSIS OF HAZARDOUS
WASTE MANAGEMENT (Cleveland Heights, Oh: Leading Edge Reports,
December, 1990), pg. 2. Available for $1950.00 from: Leading Edge
reports, 12417 Cedar Rd., Cleveland Heights, Oh 44106; phone (216) 791-

[2] The Jacksonville story has been told well by Stephanie Abarbanel,
"Toxic Nightmare on Main Street," FAMILY CIRCLE August 14, 1990, pgs.
77-80, 120-128.

[3] Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), FACING AMERICA'S TRASH; WHAT
Government Printing Office, October, 1989), pg. 73. 400 pgs. $16.00
from U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402-9325. Order
GPO Stock No. 052003-01168-9.

QUALITY (Boulder, CO: Westview Press [5500 Central Ave., Boulder, CO
80301; phone (303) 444-3541], 1990).

Descriptor terms: hazardous materials; risk assessment; jacksonville,
ar; ar; epa; solid waste industry; federal; revolving door; race;
african-americans; latinos; hispanics; asian-americans; bullard;
citizen groups;