Environmental protection agency
by Alyssa A. Lappen
Forbes | Dec. 19, 1983
Vol. 132, No. 23, pp. 192-193
For all the talk about cleaning up toxic waste, something like 98% of it is still being dumped or buried. It should be simple enough to find a better solution and cash in on what ought to be a huge business opportunity. But in waste management, the solutions are as complex as the chemicals meant to be cleaned up.
The biggest impediment to a technological solution, many companies feel, is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Its bureaucracy is so labyrinthine and the rules to administer the agency’s Superfund–a $770 million kitty designated specifically for toxic waste cleanups–are so entangled, that money for testing promising new technologies is rarely made available to outsiders, or even to those inside the agency.
That has hurt companies like Lopat Enterprises, Inc. This tiny Asbury Park, N.J. firm last year developed a product called K-20, which coats, and thereby renders harmless, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the deadly substance once used in all electrical transformers. Unlike incineration, which treats PCBs collected for disposal, K-20 can treat them in situ, so that buildings whose walls and ceilings were contaminated by PCBs during transformer fires no longer have to be closed down. Used commercially for the first time in October, K-20 reduced PCB contamination at a Pacific Gas & Electric site in California, from 60 parts per million to 0.1 parts per million in five days, according to Lopat President Louis Flax.
Sounds great. The problem is, many companies that might be inclined to try a new technique first want the EPA’s blessing before they get involved. In the case of K-20, the EPA has given no indication that it will get involved. The EPA says it has a solution for bulk PCBs: incineration. But the agency adds that it’s not in the business of approving, much less favoring, products that might clean contaminated buildings.
Does this mean that K-20 is a product with no market? Maybe yes, maybe no. No one inside or outside the EPA seems to know. “The whole thing is a bureaucratic merry-go-round,’ says Flax. “My brain is scrambled at this point.’
K-20 isn’t the only promising process languishing at the EPA’s door, says Joel Hirschhorn of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. “The EPA doesn’t have a formal program, if any, to deal with situations where innovative technology comes along,’ he says. “It is holding back their commercialization.’
If industry refuses to act without approval, should the EPA get into the testing business? The Reagan Administration thinks not, preferring to let the market work out its own problems. But where legal liability rears its ugly head, the market is often constrained. Nobody exposes himself to the risk of expensive litigation when there are cheaper solutions available. That is one reason most waste is still treated in the time-honored method: landfill.
Government has been around this block before. At the turn of the century, similar concerns led to the establishment of the Food & Drug Administration. While it performs almost no tests of new products and technologies on its own, the FDA reviews the experimental data that support those claims. The process has proved remarkably effective in delivering consistently high-quality medicines and pure food to the American public.
Then there is the National Bureau of Standards model. Their own laboratories test products and processes for other federal agencies, and set standards for performance in such areas as fire safety and use of hazardous materials in the work place. Either model should allow the EPA to perform an effective role in ensuring that the best technologies are made available.
Although the EPA has continued to duck any role in promoting technology, it may soon have no choice. A revised version of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA) has passed in the House; Senate action will have to wait until next year. If it passes–the betting now is that it will–a twist of logic embedded in the legislation should force a greater use of technology: The bill pending gives companies that claim no alternative up to 54 months to come up with nondumping solutions for their most toxic wastes. If they don’t, the EPA must mandate a high-technology solution, irrespective of cost. Given EPA and industry laxity to date, it is almost certain that industry’s hand will be forced sometime in the late 1980s. Congress, apparently skeptical of the EPA’s willingness to get tough, chose to substitute time for action. A provision that would have forced the EPA to make companies use, within two years, the best available technology for their cleanups was written out of the bill. “After all,’ says Christopher Harris, counsel to the House commerce, transportation and tourism subcommittee, which helped shape the RCRA rewrite, “the last time the EPA tried to make rules in this area, it took them five years, and look where they got.’
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