WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16, 1983
Experts Showing Concern on Safety
Of Burying Toxic Waste in Landfills
By PHILIP M. BOFFEY
Special to The New York Times
WASHINGTON, March 15 - Burying hazardous wastes on land, by far the most common method of disposal in this country, may be the least safe practice in the long run according to an emerging consensus of expert opinion.
This judgment applies not only to past practices virtually everyone agrees were sloppy and dangerous, but also to some of the most advanced techniques required under the tougher laws of recent years.
Nobody doubts that the United States has made progress in coping with the flood of wastes generated by the world's leading industrial society. New laws have been passed; industrial polluters frightened at the prospect of enormous liability suits, are scrambling to find safer ways to dispose of toxic by products and a vast new waste disposal industry has sprung up to receive and get rid of the toxic residue of American industry.
Billions Spent Each Year
Billions of dollars a year is spent by industry and government to manage a pile of hazardous waste that is growing by hundreds of millions of metric tons annually.
But the vast bulk of that waste, as much as 80 percent by some counts, continues to be placed in hundreds of landfills scattered around the nation. That, according to an increasing number of experts, may be a tragic mistake in the long run.
Even the most advanced current landfills will eventually leak, all experts agree, so their toxic contents will sooner or later begin to ooze into underground waterways or the surface environment. The landfills are designed to be monitored for decades but their contents can remain dangerous for centuries or even, in the case of toxic metals, forever.
"Not the Way to Go"
"The use of secure landfills is not the way to go" said Samuel S. Epstein, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, who is the author of a newly published book on hazardous waste in America.
"They're not really secure," he said. "In fact, they're impractical and un-safe unless you're prepared to spend overwhelming amounts of money to produce hermetically sealed underground caskets with linings that will resist degradation for as long as the chemicals last."
The chief reason for the popularity of landfills is their low immediate cost in relation to incineration and many other alternative disposal methods. But critics contend that it the toxic dumpers were forced to assume full liability for cleaning up any future leaks and providing medical care for any future victims, the cost advantage of landfills would disappear.
"The moment you start taxing hazardous wastes to reflect external costs and start creating the right mix of economic incentives and regulation. you'll encourage a move to other alternatives and to less use of toxic chemicals," Dr. Epstein said in a telephone interview. "Any country that can put a man on the moon can solve this problem. It's not pie in the sky. We can easily cope with this problem and still function without perturbation as a highly industrialized society."
There are sharp disputes over whether the leakage that will inevitably occur at landfill sites would be truly hazardous or a minor risk of little concern. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency and leaders in industry contend that the risk posed by leaking is often not great enough to warrant spending large sums to destroy or recycle the chemicals. Nevertheless, experts on all sides of the debate agree that land disposal should be further curtailed and that alternative technologies should be brought into greater use. They disagree only on the extent and the rate of change needed.
The National Governors Association recently approved a resolution that the Federal Environmental Protection Agency "should be required to develop regulations phasing out the burial of hazardous wastes where alternative treatment technologies are reasonably available."
"The land disposal of wastes which are highly toxic or persistent should be immediately prohibited." it said.
Experts Depict Alternatives
Virtually all experts agree that there are alternatives, many of them already in hand, that can be used to replace or supplement laid burial in many cases. These are some of the options:
¶Changing industrial processes so as to reduce the generation of waste.
¶Recovery and recycling or waste materials for use in other products.
¶Incineration. on land or at sea.
¶Physical, chemical and biological treatments to reduce the volume or toxicity of the waste.
¶Injection into deep wells.
¶Dumping in deep ocean water under some circumstances.
¶Interim storage in surface tanks while further research is conducted to find the best possible treatments.
¶Banning any product or process that produces wastes that cannot be handled safely by any means at all.
California Took a Step
California has already taken the lead with a policy, enunciated when Edmund O. Brown Jr. was Governor and thus far left intact, to reduce dependence on landfills and increase the use of alternative treatments. "We found that at least 70 percent or more of all hazardous wastes generated in California could be recycled, treated or destroyed without going to land disposal," Kent Stoddard, director of California's toxic waste assessment program. said in a telephone interview. "We felt there was overwhelming evidence that there is no such thing as a secure landfill."
A three-year study by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, to be made public Wednesday, is expected to cast further doubt on land disposal. Joel S Hirschhorn, the study's director, has testified that the "long-term effectiveness of landfilling can be seriously questioned." In an interview, he said, "Our report will substantiate people's worst fears about land disposal though we're not as extreme as some groups that are totally against land disposal of any kind."
Hearings last year before a House Science and Technology subcommittee, headed by Representative James H. Scheuer, Democrat of Queens, produced a parade of witnesses who argued, in varying degrees, that land burial should be reduced. At one extreme, William Sanjour. an official of the Environmental protection Agency who is at odds with his agency's leaders, proposed no landfilling at all for hazardous wastes for which alternative treatments were certifiably available.
Chemical Group Is at Other End
At the other extreme, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, whose member companies generate much of the nation's hazardous wastes, argued that "landfilling of most hazardous wastes can be done in an environmentally sound manner." But even the chemical group acknowledged a "need to reduce dependency on landfills" and said the nation was already "headed toward a condition when landfills will be used as a last resort."
Current Environmental Protection regulations require that land burial be carried out far more carefully than in the past. The regulations require, for example, that new landfills have liners to keep the wastes inside, collection systems to remove the liquid that inevitably forms, monitoring devices to detect the escape of toxic materials, and "caps" to close off the site once it is filled. The regulations also discourage burial of most, but not all, liquids and encourage burial in solid form.
The rationale behind these rules, said John P. Lehman, director of the agency's hazardous and industrial waste division, is that typical land disposal sites will be kept under close surveillance for 20 years of operation and 30 years after the cap is on, long enough to detect and correct any leaks.
But critics say even some of the best liners and landfills appear to spring leaks quickly. Kirk Brown, a professor of soil science at Texas A&M University, testified last fall that 11 out of 12 liners he tested under field conditions leaked after six months.
Peter Montague, head of a research program at Princeton University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, found that four supposedly "secure" and "state-of-the-art" landfills in New Jersey developed leaks in the innermost of two linings within a year after being put into service. "I think the I whole idea of secure landfills is really a figment of optimistic imaginations," he said.
All Leave Some Toxic Residue
The available alternatives are not considered to be panaceas. All are either costly or create some environmental risks of their own, and none is applicable to every kind of waste.
Although hazardous waste is often portrayed as a staggering problem that almost defies solution, virtually all experts say it can be solved, given the will and commitment. The real problems are not technical, they say. but economic, political and social. The nation must decide how much it is willing to pay and what level of risk it will tolerate.
"There is no hazardous waste for which some sort or treatment could not be devised," Mr. Lehman of the E.P.A., said. "The issue is whether that is practical in the real world at a cost that would not drive all businesses into the ground. The issue gets to be how fast can you move away from a practice that's been with us throughout history."
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