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#87 - Part 2: More Lessons From Superfund, 24-Jul-1988

The original federal superfund law for cleanup of old dumps (CERCLA)
was amended in 1984 and is now called SARA. SARA requires the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prefer PERMANENT remedies when
they clean up old dump sites. Unfortunately, the EPA is systematically
ignoring this directive from Congress (see HWN #86). A permanent remedy
for an old dump would involve treating the wastes in some way to render
them much less dangerous. For example, special high-temperature
incinerators (not to be confused with mass burn garbage incinerators)
might be used to detoxify wastes, or chemical processing might be used
to break down toxic molecules.

Last week we reviewed a study of EPA's performance by the U.S.
Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). This week we continue
learning from EPA's superfund failures and we add a new source of
information that all superfund activists should have: the report RIGHT
TRAIN, WRONG TRACK, subtitled, "Failed leadership in the superfund
cleanup program" issued by a group of traditional environmental groups
and by an industry trade group (Hazardous Waste Treatment Council) in
June, 1988. Throughout this issue of HWN, we refer to this study as

RIGHT TRAIN, WORNG TRACK looks at all 75 'records of decision' (RODs)
produced by EPA during fiscal year 1987. A ROD is the final document
that EPA issues for a superfund site; it says what will be done to
remedy the site and it gives a rationale for the decision.

Despite SARA's clear requirement that wastes be treated to render them
safe, these 75 RODs reveal that the EPA required full waste treatment
in only 6 cases (8%); they required partial treatment in 18 cases (24%)
and no treatment whatsoever in 51 cases (68%).

In 2 out of every 3 superfund cleanups, the EPA recommends not treating
the wastes to detoxify them. In some cases, wastes are left where they
are but a clay or soil or concrete or asphalt "cap" is placed over them
to prevent rain from moving the wastes off-site. In some cases EPA adds
a "slurry wall" (a "curtain" of clay placed in the ground around the
wastes by deep trenching). In other cases, they recommend excavating
the wastes and reburying them in another landfill--a 'solution' that
U.S. Congressman John Dingell calls "the superfund shell game." (RTWT,
pg. 14) Thus in 2 out of every 3 superfund cleanups during 1987, EPA
selected a landfilling remedy that is intended, by law, to be the
"least favored method for managing hazardous wastes." (RTWT, pg. 12)

In most instances, RODs give cost as the reason for selecting a
"remedy" that does not involve treatment of wastes. EVEN HERE, THE EPA
IS IGNORING THE LAW. Congress explicitly changed the meaning of "cost
effective" when it amended CERCLA to create SARA. Under CERCLA, a "cost
effective" remedy meant the lowest cost remedy. However, under SARA,
"The term 'cost-effective' means that in determining the appropriate
level of cleanup, the President [through his agency, the EPA] first
determines the appropriate level of environmental protection to be
achieved and then selects a cost effective means of achieving that
good." (RTWT, pg. 14). In other words, the EPA is supposed to decide
what is needed to protect public health, and then is supposed to select
the cheapest way to achieve that goal. And SARA tells the EPA that the
protection it should aim for is permanent protection. Thus, the EPA is
never justified in selecting a short-term, impermanent remedy (like
landfilling or capping) simply because it is cheaper than a permanent
alternative. The law could hardly be clearer.

In the case of organic wastes (like PCBs or DDT or solvents), often the
most effective remedy will be to break down the wastes, rendering them
much less toxic. One way to do this is through hightemperature
incineration. However, the EPA often rejects this alternative on the
basis of erroneous cost estimates. For example, at the Crystal City,
Texas site, EPA received a bid of $250 per ton for incinerating the
soil to detoxify it. In the Crystal City ROD, EPA multiplied this by 4
and said $1000 per ton was too expensive. At Sand Springs, Arkansas,
the bid was $150 per ton for incineration; the agency multiplied this
by 13 and issued the ROD saying $2000 per ton was too much to pay. REAL
$450 to $2000 per ton the EPA likes to use in RODs. (RTWT, pg. 28)

EPA is now starting to favor a modified landfilling approach; they seem
now to favor "solidification" or "stabilization" (S/S) of wastes in the
ground. The goal is to turn mixed soil and chemicals into a rock-like
mass that won't release toxic chemicals to the environment. Sometimes
soil is dug up and mixed with concrete-like glop, the mixture is put
back in the ground and it hardens. Sometimes the glop is pumped into
the ground where, the hope is, it will mix with the waste uniformly and

However, the OTA report ARE WE CLEANING UP? (see HWN #86) makes it very
clear that this remedy has many problems and, in any case, is not known
to be a permanent remedy.

Solidification increases the volume of the wastes by an amount that
varies from 50% to 200%. (OTA pg. 61) [This is important for people in
the garbage incineration ash disposal debate.] More importantly: "There
is, at present, no set protocol for evaluating the efficacy of
stabilization technologies." (OTA, pg. 8) In other words, there's no
agreed-upon way to decide whether S/S technology is working or not, no
standard way to test it so that people can reach agreement on whether
it's good or bad.

"The ability of any chemical stabilization technology to reduce
toxicity of a wide range of organic and inorganic contaminants has not
been proven nor is it generally accepted by the technical community."
(OTA pg. 73)

In short, the achilles heel of S/S technology is this: "Considerable
research data exists demonstrating the effectiveness of this technology
in immobilizing a wide range of contaminants, primarily inorganics. A
substantial amount of data does not exist, however, to accurately judge
the long term reliability of the process." (OTA pg. 20). LONG-TERM

The 106-page report by Linda Greer and others, RIGHT TRAIN, WRONG TRACK
is available for $25 from the Hazardous Waste Treatment Council, 1440
New York Ave., Suite 310, Washington, DC 20005; phone (202) 783-

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: sara; ota; laws; legislation; cercla; landfilling;
epa; congress; remedial action; incineration; ota; hazardous waste
industry; studies; findings; hazardous waste treatment council;
environmentalists; records of decision; waste treatment technologies;
caps; soil; soil contamination; john dingell; cercla; alternative
treatment technologies; toxicity; tx; crystal city, tx; ak; sand
springs, ak; waste solidification; solidification; ash; linda greer;