The History of Hazardous Waste Disposal: An Overview
December 17, 2019

Long ago, solid wastes and hazardous waste were all managed in much the same manner. They were all dumped into the nearest marsh, waterway, hole, or other undesirable pieces of land. It became after a certain point that this out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy was not going to work and could not continue. It also became apparent that particular wastes were a more significant threat to humans and the environment than others.

What Defines a Hazardous Waste?

The United States Environmental Policy defines hazardous waste as one that has the potential to:

  • Present a substantial or potential hazard to humans or the environment when not properly treated, transported, stored, or disposed of
  • Can cause or can significantly contribute to mortality or an increase in serious or irreversible illness

Many businesses in the U.S. generate hazardous waste. Some of these businesses are small scale and can be located within a community. Others are larger companies such as oil refineries, or chemical manufacturers. Under the EPA laws, no matter the size of your business, you are required to follow hazardous waste disposal regulations. This is a history of the EPA and how those laws came to be in place.

Why Laws Were Created to Govern Hazardous and Solid Wastes

There came a recognition that industrial wastes were being dumped that are dangerous and should be handled in a special manner. In 1976 the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) created the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which is our country’s primary law to govern the disposal of hazardous and solid wastes. Congress passed RCRA to address our country’s growing volume of industrial and municipal wastes. The RCRA then amended the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 and set new national goals:

  • Protect human health and the environment from potential hazards created by waste disposal
  • Conserve natural resources and energy
  • Reduce the amount of generated wastes
  • Ensure wastes are managed in an environmental manner

The RCRA intended to achieve these goals by creating three interrelated and distinct programs:

  • The Hazardous Waste Program falls under the RCRA Subtitle C. It establishes a system for controlling hazardous waste from when it is generated until it is disposed of in what is called from ‘cradle to grave.’
  • The Solid Waste Program falls under the RCRA Subtitle D and encourages states to create comprehensive plans for their management of municipal solid waste and nonhazardous industrial solid waste. Under Subtitle D, the RCRA also urged states to set criteria for solid waste disposal facilities and solid waste landfills and prohibited the dumping of solid wastes in open areas.
  • The Underground Storage Tank Program (UST) falls under RCRA Subtitle 1 and regulates underground storage tanks that hold or store petroleum products and hazardous substances. There are more than 552,000 underground storage tanks across the country that store hazardous materials or petroleum. The greatest threat from these underground tanks is a leak from them contaminating groundwater, which affects our source of drinking water for almost half of all Americans. States, the EPA, tribes, and territories all work in partnership with industries to protect the environment and human health to prevent these possible leaks.

Steps Taken for Hazardous Waste Disposal Since 1976

Since the 1976 creation of the RCRA, Congress has amended and strengthened the hazardous waste disposal laws. The passage of the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA) was done in 1984. These mandates and amendments to the RCRA involved removing land disposal areas for hazardous waste, corrective action for release, and waste minimization.

  • Land Disposal Restrictions- Congress created land disposal restrictions in 1984 to prohibit the land disposal of untreated hazardous wastes. Land disposal wastes must meet EPA concentration levels or methods of treatment before they can be disposed of into the land.
  • Corrective Action– Corrective Action is an RCRA requirement that facilities must follow to treat, dispose of, or store hazardous waste before they can be released into groundwater, the air, or the soil. Corrective Action is implemented through RCRA orders and permits and includes provisions for corrective action as well as financial assurance to cover the expenses of implementing cleanup measures.
  • Waste Minimization– Waste minimization is the use of source reduction. It focuses on environmentally sound recycling methods before energy recovery, disposal of wastes, or treatments. The EPA encourages source reduction, treatment of wastes, energy recovery, recycling, and disposal methods.

The RCRA has been amended on two occassions since the 1984 HSWA:

In 1992 the RCRA strengthened its enforcement at federal facilities through the Federal Facility Compliance Act. In 1996, the Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act provided improved flexibility for land disposal of specific wastes.

Timeline of the RCRA (Resource Conservation And Recovery Act)

The RCRA is our primary law governing the disposal of hazardous and solid wastes and was created by the EPA to face the country’s growing problems with industrial and municipal wastes. This is the timeline of the RCRA and some of its milestones through history:

1976- This is the year the RCRA was passed into law by Congress and President Ford.

1980- Congress passed the Used Oil Recycling Act. This Act amended the Solid Waste Disposal Act, which required lubricating oil to be labeled with a statement regarding the recycling of used oil. It directed regulations to protect the environment and humans from the hazards of burning used oil.

1981- Hazardous Waste Tank Regulations were published into two sets of rules with HSWA (Health and Safety at Work Act) and non-HSWA authorities. The EPA authorized states to manage their own RCRA programs regarding the safety of underground tank storage and use.

1981- This year saw the first RCRA hazardous waste permit issued.

1984- Congress enacted the Solid Waste Disposal Act Amendments. These amendments exempted particular mining wastes from regulations until further studies could be completed.

1984- This year also saw the Corrective Action Program launched by the EPA to remedy clean up at facilities identified by RCRA.

1985- Surface impoundments and hazardous waste landfills were forced to close if they were not complying with groundwater requirements.

1985- This year also saw the development by the EPA to regulate used oil and have it recycled by being burned for energy recovery.

1986- The EPA issued generators of wastes their regulations they were required to follow.

1986- This year also saw the finalization of rules regarding hazardous waste restrictions for land disposal.

1988- An Act was passed for degradable plastic ring carriers. This Act required plastic ring carriers to be made of naturally degradable materials.

1988- Also in 1988, Congress enacted the Medical Waste Tracking Act

1989- The EPA created an agenda for action to be taken on the solid waste dilemma. It presented recommendations and goals for action to address the country’s solid waste issues.

1990- A narration of revisions was released on the hazardous waste characteristics of toxicity.

1990- Also in 1990, the EPA made its final ruling on land disposal restrictions.

1990- This year also saw the EPA announcing regulations for certain wood preserving processes as hazardous waste.

1991- The EPA proposed a consent decree with the Environmental Defense Fund, and it was signed. They agreed to evaluate waste streams to determine what should be added to the hazardous waste listing.

1991- Federal standards were established for municipal solid waste landfills to reduce the environmental impact of future and existing MSWLFs.

1992- EPA defined debris of hazardous waste regulations and created standards for containment buildings.

1992- This year also saw the District Court of Appeals vacating the treatment standards for corrosive and ignitable wastes

1992- Congress passed the Federal Facility Compliance Act to comply with RCRA.

1992- Also, this year, Congress passed the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant). This Act gave the EPA the authority to regulate the United States Department of Energy’s activities.

1993- The EPA finalized the Corrective Action Management Unit Rule which allows agencies to create standards and requirements for on-site units using contaminated media and hazardous wastes.

1993- This year also saw revised treatment standards for corrosive and ignitable wastes.

1994- The EPA launched a Jobs Through Recycling Initiative.

1994- The EPA released its Hazardous Waste Minimization Combustion Strategy.

1994- This year also saw the published rule by the EPA on Air Emission Standards.

1994- The EPA created the WasteWise Program, which assists businesses to take cost-effective actions to recycle and reduce their solid wastes.

1995- The EPA announced treatment standards for the toxicity characteristics of organic wastes by combining existing treatment standards into the Universal Treatment Standards.

1995- This year also saw the univeral waste regulations being declared, which included pesticides, batteries, and hazardous waste thermostats.

1996- The Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act removed the requirement that wastewaters be subjected to treatments other than de-characterization before land disposal.

1996- A final rule was published by the EPA, implementing OECD decisions concerning the control of waste movements destined for recovery operations.

1996- This year also saw the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Act signed into law.

1998- The EPA declared revised treatment standards for metal wastes and created alternative LDR treatment standards prohibiting land disposal of hazardous soil.

1999- Hazardous waste lamps were included in the federal list of universal wastes.

2000- The HWIR was released by the EPA with waste exemption levels for 36 chemicals.

For the next nineteen years, the history of the RCRA has seen a number of revisions for existing rules and regulations, and new frameworks have been established for the treatment of wastes. All of these changes and revisions are intended to make our world a safer place to live.

Today we can see new sophistication for maintaining Hazardous Waste Management Systems with amazing software. These new systems make it possible for environmental professionals to use a wide range of tools to make sure the environment remains protected.

The hazardous waste manifest that is in place today is the result of a lot of hard work performed by a number of individuals across the country. This hard work has been completed over the last forty years in both the government and private sectors. These manifests provide the people of the United States an excellent tool to handle hazardous wastes safely and maintain environmental stewardship.

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