The American Chemical Society (ACS) has published new estimates of the
total size of the U.S. hazardous waste problem; quoting unnamed
industry sources, the ACS says the total is somewhere between 580
million tons and 2.9 billion tons produced each year. The current
official estimate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is
290 million tons.
Furthermore, the ACS says the federal government really has no idea how
much hazardous waste is created each year by U.S. industry and has NO
WAY TO FIND OUT. This means, though the ACS does not say so, that U.S.
manufacturing industries, including the chemical industry which
reportedly produces 70% of all hazardous wastes, are out of control.
They are out of control quite literally because there is with
sufficient resources or knowledge to control them or even track their
In 1973 the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) wrote its first
report to Congress on hazardous waste. At that time, the EPA estimated
that American industry was producing 10 million tons of hazardous waste
each year. If the latest ACS estimates are correct, it means that EPA
originally underestimated the problem by somewhere between a factor of
58 and a factor of 290. In other words, the EPA's original 1973
estimate really accounted for only somewhere between 0.3% of the total
waste and 1.7% of the total waste.
Even today the real size of the problem remains unknown because, "If
Congress wanted to move on hazardous waste, its work would be impeded
by a serious lack of comprehensive recent data. Except for some
chemical industry data and estimates made by industry analysts, almost
no studies have attempted to quantify the extent of the hazardous waste
problem or determine what actually happens to those wastes," says a
staff writer in C&EN [CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS], a weekly
publication of ACS.
According to ACS, somewhere between 50% and 90% of all U.S. hazardous
waste is not regulated by RCRA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery
Act, which is supposed to be the nation's law for tracking wastes "from
cradle to grave." The wastes not covered by RCRA were officially
exempted from RCRA by EPA because the agency knew it did not have the
resources to oversee their management. ACS refers to these wastes as
"low hazard." Hazardous wastes that have been exempted from RCRA
include cement kiln dust, utility company ash and sludge), phosphate
mining wastes (often radioactive), uranium mining wastes (radioactive),
other mining wastes (many of which give rise to acid leachate, damaging
local streams and rivers), gas and oil drilling muds, and "some
chemical process wastes."
Richard Denison of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) says there are "a
number of large waste categories" that are "sort of falling through the
cracks" because of the way we categorize wastes: under RCRA, wastes are
hazardous or they are not, and those are the only two choices. If
wastes are classified as legally "hazardous" they are regulated, and if
they are "not hazardous" you can do just about anything you want with
them, no matter how dangerous they may be.
An alternative would be to rank wastes according to their degree of
hazard and require different levels of control for different degrees of
hazard. On the face of it, this would seem to make sense. However, Joel
Hirschhorn of Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), who has
favored such a system in the past, now says he's not sure it could work
under the present regime in Washington. "The [EPA's] meager resources
devoted to enforcing the current system are not enough, and I think the
whole problem would be exacerbated even more under [a degree-of-hazard
The EPA's responsibilities have increased at least fourfold since 1975.
Many new laws, and amendments to existing laws, have required the
agency to evaluate the toxicity of thousands of new chemicals, and to
regulate them in new ways. At the same time, the agency's purchasing
power in 1989 was the same as it was back in 1975. It seems obvious
that under such circumstances, the EPA would not be able to do its job
even if everyone in the agency were bright, well-trained and eager to
"These are just a few of the reasons why the grass roots environmental
movement is essential to the country's well-being. The Reagan-Bush
administration has sent the EPA to the locker room, and industry has
the playing field all to itself, except for local environmental groups
For the latest ACS waste estimates, see David J. Hanson, "Hazardous
Waste Management: Planning to Avoid Future Problems," C&EN [CHEMICAL &
ENGINEERING NEWS] July 31, 1989, pgs. 9-18; the EPA's 1973 estimates
appeared in REPORT TO CONGRESS ON HAZARDOUS WASTE DISPOSAL (Washington,
DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, June 30, 1973). The crippling
of EPA has been cataloged by William Drayton, "Environment:
Environmental Protection Agency," in Mark Green and Mark Pinsky,
AMERICA'S TRANSITION: BLUEPRINTS FOR THE 1990S (New York: Democracy
Project [215 Park Avenue South, Room 1814, NY, NY 10003; (212) 674-
8989], 1989), pgs. 212-232. See also Jonathan Lash and others, A SEASON
OF SPOILS; THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION'S ATTACK ON THE ENVIRONMENT (New
York: Pantheon, 1984).
HABITS OF CIVILIZED PEOPLE PRODUCE NEW HAZARD: ORBITING SPACE GARBAGE
The so-called civilized nations have developed a way of life that
produces waste at phenomenal rates everywhere on earth. Even outer
space is now being trashed. Since "advanced" peoples first began
orbiting satellites around the earth in 1957, they have managed to
leave behind 7,300 pieces of trash large enough to be tracked routinely
by radar. Only a few hundred of these constitute operating payloads.
These large pieces of trash include discarded launch rockets, defunct
satellites, ejected covers, and even occasional screwdrivers and
wrenches. When you count smaller pieces, there are somewhere between
30,000 and 70,000 objects orbiting the earth about the size of golf
balls. When you count smaller fragments, they may number in the
millions. In 1963, after a failed attempt in 1962, the Air Force
secretly put 1.2 billion metal needles into orbit, forming a belt ten
miles deep and ten miles wide circling the earth. Their stated goal was
to study worldwide radio communications. Since that time, the needles
have fallen back to earth and burned up during reentry into the
Even small pieces of space trash are dangerous because they have to be
traveling fast to stay in orbit. A piece of space garbage the size of a
pea traveling at 11,000 to 20,000 miles an hour can shatter a $100
million satellite. When such collisions occur, they create many small
fragments of new space junk, creating a "self-propagating debris
swarm," increasing the chances of further collisions.
Major collisions with orbiting solid waste have destroyed two and
perhaps three satellites. In 1985 a NASA (National Aeronautics and
Space Administration) spokesman said, "We might get to where we a see a
collision that breaks up an operating satellite once every 10 years."
Both the space shuttle and the permanent orbiting space station,
planned for launch in the 1990s, will be at risk of collision with
See "Space Fills Up With Junk," ENVIRONMENT Vol. 27 (May, 1985), pg.
24, and "Space Debris Poses Danger to Space Flights," C&EN [CHEMICAL &
ENGINEERING NEWS] August 22, 1988, pg. 6.
Descriptor terms: american chemical society; hazardous waste
statistics; capacity assurance planning; epa budget; ronald reagan;
george bush; regulation; rcra; edf; ota; nasa; military; satellites;