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#208 - Hazardous Waste Incineration -- Part 5: Why EPA Ignores The Alternatives, 20-Nov-1990

Since 1984, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been
aggressively promoting the incineration of hazardous wastes. Some
people view this as a positive step--at least the agency is doing
something about this problem, they say. But let us not forget that, for
more than half its 20-year lifetime, the agency promoted landfills with
equal vigor; eventually the public brought forth abundant evidence that
landfills were a disaster and only then did EPA, grudgingly, start
saying, "We, yes, it is a fact that all landfills leak." Furthermore,
despite this official recognition that all landfills leak, EPA has
continued to license new landfills on the theory that the agency has an
obligation to provide enough waste disposal capacity to keep the cost
of waste disposal affordably low for industry. Clearly this attitude
puts the agency in a conflict-ofinterest position: they're actively
promoting the waste disposal technologies that they also regulate. When
the old Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) got itself into this position
(promoting nuclear power plants while at the same time regulating
them), everyone recognized that this couldn't work--but so far the
conflict within EPA over waste disposal has escaped attention.

On the question of EPA promoting incinerators, sooner or later the
agency will appear in public, tail between its legs, and say, "Well,
yes, incineration is a major source of contamination of the human and
natural environments," just as it did with landfills. The scientific
literature is now peppered with critical appraisals of incineration
technology. Presently, EPA is keeping its finger in the dike, holding
back a deluge of criticism that will eventually overwhelm this
technology, but even EPA cannot hold back the truth forever.

Why does EPA promote incineration? Because it's a simple (though dirty)
fix to a complex problem and because it gives the appearance that the
agency knows what it's doing and has things under control and because
it minimizes government interference in industrial decision-making. If
you don't look into the matter too closely, hazardous waste
incineration gives the appearance of solving the hazardous waste
problem. In one sense, an incinerator is almost as simple as a
landfill. You dig a pit in the ground and throw wastes in; or you build
a furnace with a large hole in its face and you throw wastes in. It
hardly matters what the wastes contain: one pit, or one furnace, fits
all. You don't have enough waste-handling capacity? Just dig another
pit, or build another furnace.

Furthermore, incineration has two important advantages over
landfilling: once wastes have been put through an incinerator, they
cannot be traced back to their original source, so the generator of the
waste escapes liability. The second advantage is that an incinerator
has many parts so an incinerator can be made to appear too complicated
for anyone but engineers to understand. Everyone can see that a
landfill is nothing but a bathtub in the ground and that all bathtubs
will eventually leak. On the other hand, an incinerator can be
presented in a way that makes it seem so complex that only a rocket
scientist could comprehend it. This allows government to effectively
discourage people from participating in decision-making about
incinerators. How do we know Bill Reilly's EPA wants to discourage
public discussion? Because, for example, in July, 1990, when 37 grass-
roots groups asked EPA to hold a public hearing on its proposed new
regulations for hazardous waste incinerators, EPA took a page from
Nancy Reagan's book and just said No. Perhaps they were afraid they
would become addicted to hearing new ideas from the public.

From industry's viewpoint, a complex technology is far superior to a
simple one. The public is screaming that wastes are unregulated? Just
issue 500 pages of regulations for pits, or for furnaces; the more
complex the better. Lace the regulations with all the latest
engineering language: "state of the art," "best available control
technology," "four nines destruction," "de minimis risk," "acceptable
risk of 10-5" and so on. The public is not educated to understand such
language, and this leaves the playing field clear for industry and EPA.
Never mind that the complex regulations won't discourage the production
of an ever-increasing quantity of wastes and won't protect public
health. Under such circumstances, industry makes money the oldfashioned
way--by creating massive waste, the costs of which are passed on to
community residents and to the taxpaying public. At election time, the
President (who, after all, controls EPA) and his friends are rewarded
with large cash contributions, and thus the system regulates itself.
Balances and checks, don't you know.

The main alternative to incineration has the serious disadvantage of
being simple. Waste avoidance, or pollution prevention--in short, not
making waste--is a simple idea. Behind the scenes it may be complicated
but from an enforcement perspective, it is easy: you require industry
to report their annual waste production (about the same as they do now
under the federal Community Right to Know law) plus their annual output
of products, then you require them to reduce their waste (measured as a
percentage of the amount of product produced) by a small amount each
year--say, 10% per year. If they don't reduce their waste production,
they draw a fine; the fines can help support the governmment's
enforcement program which, like the IRS, periodically investigates to
see who's been lying to Uncle Sam, with stiff penalties including jail
for those who get caught. The chief advantage of such a scheme is that
it minimizes government interference in specific industrial processes--
Uncle Sam doesn't have to decide what is "best available technology."

The chief disadvantage of such a scheme is that it would require our
industrial leaders to get off the dime and do things differently.
Pollution prevention calls for initiative, ingenuity, imagination,
brainpower, longerterm strategic thinking, managerial skill--all the
things that many people say Japan now has but America hasn't. It calls
for the recognition that pollution is a visible sign of inefficiency in
industrial operations. Pollution is money going up the chimney, down
the sewer, or out the door into waste trucks. Pollution is raw material
unconverted, or it is products that are not fully recovered. Increased
efforts to reduce waste can result in increased profit.

But EPA seems to hold the view that America's industrial leaders are
losers and has-beens, incapable of change, so EPA talks a lot about
pollution prevention (because every school child can figure out that's
what we need), but meanwhile EPA works overtime to help the waste
industry build yet more incinerators because incinerators don't require
anything of industry--they only require the general public to absorb
more pollution.

People who occupy the middle ground--those who believe American
industry is simply too lethargic and too unimaginative to ever achieve
significant pollution prevention, yet are themselves unwilling to let
incinerators proliferate across the land like chancre sores-these
people are asking, "What are the alternatives to incineration (besides
pollution prevention)?"

Even a small technical library contains so many answers to such a
question that the problem is one of information overload. There are too
many ways to detoxify wastes, besides incineration, for most people to
have sufficient time to review them all. (Of course, people who decide
to produce toxic wastes have a special obligation to figure out what to
do about them; for these people, lack of time is no excuse.)

Still, for those who want to know, here are some books to start with:
WASTE TREATMENT (Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Data Corporation, 1978); Amir A.
Technomic Publishing Co., 1980 [Technomic is now located in Lancaster,
PA]); Edwin J. Martin and James H. Johnson, Jr., editors, HAZARDOUS
WASTE MANAGEMENT ENGINEERING (NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1987); D.J. De
(Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Data Corporation, 1978); Gary F. Lindgren, GUIDE
Publishers, 1983); Harry Freeman, INNOVATIVE THERMAL PROCESSES FOR
TREATING HAZARDOUS WASTES (Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing Co.,
1986); Harasiddhiprasad G. Bhatt, Robert M. Sykes, and Thomas L.
MI: Lewis Publishers, 1983). And this just scratches the surface of
available literature on technologies besides incineration for
detoxifying wastes.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: epa; hazardous waste incineration; atomic energy
commission; waste reduction; rtk; alternative treatment technologies;