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#91 - What We Must Do -- 4: A License To Pollute, 21-Aug-1988

Our series, What We Must Do (see HWN #88, #89 and #90) is describing
the root causes of the toxics problem in America. The waste haulers
serve as frontline soldiers, disposing of toxics for industries that
produce them, so we've focused on the haulers first. In coming weeks,
we'll turn to the toxics-producing industries themselves, and finally
we'll consider remedies.

In past articles in this series, we've shown that:

The waste haulers are enormous and growing like a cancer; both Waste
Management, Inc., and Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), the nation's
biggest haulers, are growing about 20% per year, doubling their size
every 3.5 years; together, they already control nearly 50% of the
nation's privately-owned trash business. A handful of companies are
cornering the market for these essential municipal services. Waste
Management now owns 772 subsidiaries, most of which used to be its
competitors. This year alone, Waste Management has announced plans to
buy out 100 more competitors; the Justice Department's anti-trust
division looks the other way. "Can the antitrust division challenge
each merger that comes up? We'd be doing nothing else," says J. Robert
Kramer III, a Justice Department attorney in Washington.

The waste industry is convincing local governments to build the largest
public works projects every undertaken at the municipal and county
level--trash incinerators with complex pollution control systems and
associated ash landfills; the debt will take a generation to pay off;
the projects themselves are often technically ill-conceived and will be
major sources of environmental damage; the ash landfills will become
the next generation of superfund sites; since local governments are
going into these toxic landfill projects with their eyes open, they may
well be held liable for water pollution problems that are certain to
occur. They won't be able to say, "We didn't know."

Leaders of the waste industry operate by a pattern of bribery, price-
fixing, bid-rigging and suppression of competition, a pattern that
government seems unable or unwilling to curb.

Government often hasn't sufficient expertise or clout to monitor and
regulate the waste hauling industry, which has the best expertise, and
the most influential friends, that money can buy;

There's a revolving door from government to industry, so some
government regulators may not even try to control the waste haulers in
hopes that the sleepiest regulators can look forward to retiring on
high salaries in the waste industry;

Between 1980 and 1983, Waste Management was issued 547 citations and
orders; 19 involved groundwater pollution. Since 1984, citations have
grown to 632 and the groundwater violations have quadrupled to 88. BFI
was cited 196 times between 1980 and 1983, 12 times for groundwater
infractions. Since 1983, BFI's citations more than doubles to 464 and
groundwater infractions tripled to 36.

What's more disturbing is that the government has become "hooked" on
ser-vices provided by the waste hauling industry. Thus even when the
industry breaks important rules of civilized society, the government
cannot "debar them," (prevent them from taking government contracts)
because their work has become essential.

Between them, Waste management and BFI have cornered 40% of all EPA-
financed toxic cleanups, according to the Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) Sun

The federal EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) has procedures
for barring outlaw companies from getting government contracts. But the
waste giants provide essential services that the government needs. As a
result, the government levies fines against outlaw firms--but these
amount to no more than a normal cost of doing business. "Criminal fines
amount to little more than a license to pollute," says Laurel Price, a
New Jersey assistant attorney general. "The deterrent is not great,"
she says. Fines are bargained away; when the government sought $2.2
million from Waste Management for dumping hospital waste illegally,
they finally collected $423, after two years of haggling.

Even when the EPA temporarily barred Waste Management from accepting
waste at one of its leaking landfills in California back in 1984, other
government agencies (Department of Defense, for example) sent 8,300
tons of cleanup wastes to the site while the EPA looked the other way.

"They have facilities located in areas where we need to use them," says
Elaine Stanley, who directs an EPA enforcement branch. "We don't have
too much of a choice in some cases."

"If we blacklist hazardous waste haulers in an area where they are the
only haulers, we put ourselves in a bad situation. We need someone to
move that waste," says Bob Meunier, compliance chief for an EPA grants
division. The EPA has no workforce of its own to handle chemical

The EPA does have its own laboratory facilities but they are too small
to analyze all the samples required by law. Instead, the government
relies on the waste haulers to hire private labs, or to set up labs of
their own. The labs report the results to government and the government
takes them at face value. One of the private labs used most often by
Waste Management, Inc. was started by Doug Costle after he finished his
term as head of EPA under President Carter. When former EPA officials
run a lab, it lends unwarranted credibility to the clients of that lab.
And it further tightens the already-snug relationship between the
regulators and those they regulate.

In 1985, EPA found Waste Management was filtering water samples before
it sent them off for lab testing. The EPA said this practice could make
pollution look less serious that it was. The company disputed this
claim, according to the Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) SUN SENTINAL, and the
company continues to filter samples at more than 100 landfills it
operates. Furthermore, the EPA did not alert state governments to the
problem. "You can look at that as a flaw in the system if you want. I
guess it is," says Fred Haber, who monitors labs for an EPA office in
Edison, NJ.

The EPA is about to lose even more control over Waste Management. The
giant hauler is spending $20 million constructing a new laboratory to
test samples from its 117 landfills, where it will have complete
control over all the analytic results.


--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: waste hauling industry; chemical production; chemical
industry; bfi; wmi; msw; antitrust; j robert cramer; doj; incineration;
ash; landfilling; sara; hazardous waste industry; federal; revolving
door; groundwater; water pollution; lawsuits; arrests; regulation;
monitoring; epa; laurel price; organized crime; corruption; lawyers;
illegal dumping; leaks; ca; dod; elaine stanley; enforcement; doug
costle; jimmy carter; fl; fred haber; laboratories;