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#54 - Editorial: What Can Grass Roots Citizens Do To Force Industry To Reduce Its Reliance On Hazard, 06-Dec-1987

Recent events forced us to ask, How did we get ourselves into this
garbage crisis in the first place and what solutions are available to
concerned citizens?

These questions arose because the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency's General Counsel, Francis Blake, has written a memo arguing
that ash from municipal incinerators should be redefined as non-
hazardous, so that it can be dumped into ordinary landfills. The
nation's 111 operating municipal incinerators produce about five
million tons of ash annually. Numerous studies in recent months have
shown that about one-third of this ash is sufficiently toxic to fall
within a legal definition of "hazardous waste."

In July, 1985, the EPA had ruled that incinerator ash is covered by the
nation's hazardous waste laws. Under the 1985 interpretation, if
municipal incinerator ash is tested and found to be hazardous, it must
be handled as a hazardous waste and the incinerator that produced it
must be regulated as a hazardous waste generator. Now the EPA wants to
reverse itself, pretending that the hazards of lead, cadmium, and
dioxin aren't real. According to the WALL STREET JOURNAL Oct. 13, a
staff member for U.S. Congressman James Florio (D-NJ) calls EPA's new
legal interpretation "just wacky."

Why is this wacky business happening?

Since World War II, more and more toxic chemicals have been put into
consumer products. The basic trend has been to substitute petroleum-
based chemicals, many of which happen to be hazardous, for traditional
materials. More and more plastics have been substituted for wood, paper
and leather; that simple truth captures the essence of the trend. No
one with any power has opposed this trend because, traditionally,
American government does not interfere with private industrial
decisions.

Now, as a result of millions of independent industrial decisions,
municipal garbage has become toxic and hazardous. Household products
are filled with dangerous chemicals. (As a byproduct of these
decisions, workplaces, where hazardous household products are
manufactured, have become more dangerous, and the air in peoples'
homes, where hazardous consumer products are used, has become
dangerously contaminated.)

For thousand of years, people have thrown their garbage into holes in
the ground, which is to say, dumps. In recent decades, we dignified our
dumps by calling them landfills. Between 1980 and 1985, the nation woke
up to the fact that all landfills leak. Even landfills with double or
triple liners, with leak detector systems, with leachate collection
systems, and with properly-placed caps--all will eventually leak. THERE
IS NO SUCH THING AS A SECURE LANDFILL.

Realizing this fundamental truth about landfills, citizens pressured
government to ban landfilling. Seeing the handwriting on the wall,
major corporations (like Westinghouse and Allied Chemical), and the
banks that lend them money, thought they saw a business opportunity:
they believed municipal garbage incinerators would become a multi-
billion dollar business. As a result, hundreds of incinerator projects
were started. Today, 210 municipal incinerators are under construction
or planned; they are expected to produce 20 to 25 million tons of ash
each year.

Now it is apparent that these incinerators reduce the bulk of the
garbage but do not reduce its toxicity. In fact, in many cases,
toasting the garbage increases its toxicity by creating dangerous
dioxins, furans and other organic compounds resulting from the heat.
(Even toasting a piece of bread changes its chemical constituents,
producing small amounts of cancer-causing chemicals in the badly burned
parts.)

There's no escaping the fact that the dangerous residues from municipal
incinerators will have to be put into landfills, which, everyone now
knows, will all eventually leak, contaminating the environment. The
government is therefore facing an unpleasant choice: force industry to

reduce its use of toxic chemicals, or relax the laws and let toxic
municipal garbage and ash continue to be dumped into holes in the
ground, which will contaminate our drinking water and the general
environment.

Forcing industry to use fewer toxic chemicals will bring opposition
from industry right now. It may cost some corporations money to change
their ways, but even more importantly, it will be portrayed as an
unAmerican intrusion of government into private decision-making.
Forcing a reduction in the use of toxics materials will diminish
corporate contributions to the election campaigns of those politicians
leading the fight.

On the other hand, allowing toxic materials to be dumped into the
ground will not cause problems immediately. It will be our children who
pay for the Superfund sites we create today. Our children will be
poisoned, but it won't happen until some time in the future. Today's
politicians and today's corporate executives will have retired by then,
so they won't have to bear responsibility for their weakness or their
greed. Thus the Reagan administration, the EPA, and thousands of state
and local officials, are eager to dump toxic materials into the
environment, rather than confront corporate America to force a
reduction in the use of toxic materials. Even the big, traditional
environmental groups are unwilling to confront industry on this
fundamental issue: social control of industrial decisions. There is
only one group of people willing to take this on: members of the
affected public who are paying attention, the grass roots environmental
movement.

At the grass roots level, citizens have little positive power to force
the adoption of sensible technologies. But the movement has great
negative power--it is relatively easy to stop bad projects. Grass roots
leaders are making an important contribution to America's well-being by
stopping up the pipe. They oppose the dumping of toxic materials in the
ground. They oppose dangerous incinerators. Massive local opposition to
dangerous disposal technologies will force government and industry to
reduce the use of toxic chemicals because there won't be any easy place
to dump them. And EVERYONE now sees that reducing the use of toxics is
the only real, long-term solution to these problems.

--Peter Montague

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Descriptor terms: chemical industry; waste disposal technologies;
incineration; msw;