The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is commonly referred to as RCRA (reck-rah). It is much better to pronounce the acronym as “reck-rah.” Spelling it out as “R-C-R-A” conjures images of the Village People with their famous song.
RCRA is our nation’s primary law governing the disposal of solid and hazardous waste. Congress passed RCRA on October 21, 1976 to address the increasing problems the nation faced from our growing volume of municipal and industrial waste.
Hazardous Waste – Past
Long before wastes generated by the United States growing population and industries were categorized as solid waste (e.g., garbage) and hazardous waste (e.g., toxic by-products), they were all managed in essentially the same way. And that was to dump them into the nearest hole, marsh, waterway, or onto an undesirable piece of land.
Over time it became clear that an out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy for waste management was, in fact, neither. It also became clear that some wastes posed greater hazards than others. Two incidents brought attention to this “dumping” problem:
- Love Canal: Love Canal was a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, that had large quantities of chemicals and industrial waste dumped by Hooker Chemical into a canal over several decades. The canal was covered with soil, and vegetation began to grow atop the dumpsite.
A housing community was planned and developed on top of this capped canal. Toxic wastes eventually seeped out of the ground and causing many health concerns. By 1978, Love Canal had become a national media event with articles referring to the neighborhood as “a public health time bomb,” and “one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history.”
- Times Beach: Times Beach was a small (480 acre) suburban community some 17 miles west of St. Louis. In the early 1970s, Times Beach had a population of 1,240 people and two growing mobile home parks. It also had very dusty roads. In an effort to control the dust, the city contracted with a waste oil contractor to spray the roads at will during the summer of 1972 and 1973.
Meanwhile, Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company, Inc. (NEPACCO) began operating out of a facility located near Verona, Missouri, west of Times Beach. This facility was owned by Hoffman-Taff, a company that produced the Agent Orange herbicide for use during the Vietnam War. The result of this herbicide/insecticide purification process led to the storage and accumulation of heavily concentrated dioxin still bottoms, or thick, oily residues, which ultimately was the base of the oil sprayed on the dusty roads
It was later determined that the waste oil had very extremely high concentrations of dioxins, and after much testing and debate, the town was abandoned in 1982 due to the health concerns.
At this time (1970), the newly formed agency named the EPA was also under very close scrutiny by several congressional committees. Times Beach and the EPA both gained national notoriety: one for dual disasters and the other for alleged mismanagement of hazardous waste.
Hazardous Waste – Moving Forward
RCRA banned all open dumping of waste, encouraged source reduction and recycling, and promoted the safe disposal of municipal waste. RCRA also mandated strict controls over the treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. The first RCRA regulations, “Hazardous Waste and Consolidated Permit Regulations,” published in the Federal Register on May 19, 1980 (45 FR 33066; May 19, 1980), established the basic “cradle-to-grave” approach to hazardous waste management that exists today.
RCRA was amended and strengthened by Congress in November 1984 with the passing of the Federal Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA). These amendments to RCRA required phasing out land disposal of hazardous waste. Some of the other mandates of this strict law include
- increased enforcement authority for EPA
- more stringent hazardous waste management standards
- comprehensive underground storage tank program
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