The Atlanta Constitution
Saturday, February 24, 1990
Incinerator would erode waste reduction plan
By William Sanjour
Special to The Atlanta Constitution
Mr. Sanjour has worked with the US. Environmental Protection Agency for 18 years, 16 of those with the hazardous waste management program. He frequently testifies before legislative bodies (on his behalf and not that of the EPA) about environmental issues. These remarks are adapted from recent testimony before the Georgia Senate's Committee on Natural Resources.
Georgia's plan for construction of a huge commercial hazardous waste incinerator and hazardous waste "perpetual storage" facility to service the entire country would make proposed waste reduction legislation relatively useless.
A commercial hazardous waste facility is completely incompatible with waste reduction programs. A commercial facility, be it incineration, storage, disposal or recycling, makes its money on the quantity of waste entering its gates.
Any attempt to reduce the amount of waste available to it would be met with resistance, and the industry has demonstrated that it is capable of exerting considerable influence. This influence is due to the close working relationships formed with government officials who are lured by the huge profits made by the waste management industry.
Take, for example, Alabama - home of the nation's largest hazardous waste landfill. The deal to permit and then sell this landfill to Waste Management Inc. (WMI) was set up by, among others, James Parsons, son-in-law of then Governor George Wallace, and Drayton Pruitt, the governor's associate and longtime mayor and county attorney in Sumter County, site of the landfill.
They used their influence with the Legislature to pass a law transferring liability for the wastes disposed in the landfill to the state. The facility was then sold to WMI for a huge profit. Several years later, a state law was passed barring any competition. In spite of promises of benefits to Sumter County residents, the county has gone downhill ever since the landfill opened.
A facility's influence is magnified. by the influence of every company and government agency that use it - since once wastes are sent there, their generators have a vested interest in protecting the facility. Their power. is so strong that it is not always clear whether the government controls the facility or the facility controls the government.
WMI's Alabama landfill not only receives hazardous wastes from most large U.S. corporations, it also is the largest recipient of wastes from the federal Superfund program.
There are many examples of the cozy relationship with the government regulatory agencies. For example, in 1984 WMI's Alabama facility was found to be storing PCBs contaminated with dioxin without a permit. As "punishment," Alabama and the federal EPA signed a consent agreement with WMI. For a $450,000 fine and an agreement to follow some, but not all, of the existing regulations that govern. such facilities, WMI received a PCB disposal permit, a waiver to remove illegally stored PCBs, and a waiver for most other regulations. The value to WMI of these action's was perhaps more than $100 million.
The industry's power to influence government actions. is further enhanced by the ease with which it hires government regulatory officials. More than 30 states and federal officials have gone over to the industry in the Southeast region alone, including a former EPA regional administrator in Atlanta.
This practice extends even to the highest levels. William Ruckelshaus, a former EPA administrator and close adviser to President Bush, is CEO of the second-largest U.S. waste management company. He is credited with getting William Reilly, the present administrator, his job. Howard Baker, President Reagan's chief of staff, is on WMI's board of directors and is credited with getting Greer Tidwell, EPA Region IV administrator in Atlanta, his job.
With this kind of influence and power, trying to have a meaningful waste reduction program after allowing a large commercial hazardous waste management facility into Georgia would be like trying to have a meaningful egg-laying program after you've let the fox into the chicken coop. But if it is determined that Georgia nevertheless needs off-site hazardous waste management capacity, the facility:
- should not be run as a profit center but as an adjunct to the waste reduction program. Otherwise waste reduction cannot achieve its maximum effectiveness.
- should be limited to using wastes generated in the state.
These goals are just the opposite of society's goals - reducing hazardous wastes (hence income) and maximizing protection of health and the environment (expenses).
For too long government and industry have paid lip service to the importance
of waste reduction but put all their money and energy into waste management.
It has not worked. It is time for the tail to stop wagging the dog.