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Hazardous waste is a special category of refuse that is particularly dangerous, and particularly harmful to the environment. To be categorized as hazardous waste the material has to meet one of 5 criteria: ignitability (waste that can spontaneously combust under certain conditions or has a flash point of less than 140 degrees Fahrenheit), corrosivity (acids or bases that can corrode metal containers), reactivity (unstable chemicals under normal conditions), toxicity (harmful or fatal when ingested), or radio-active. Due to the extreme danger posed by radio-active wastes their disposal is often regulated separately from other hazardous wastes. Interestingly enough, many materials that are categorized as hazardous waste have economic value to certain industries; farmers need fertilizers, consumers want televisions and computers, even though they contain toxic metals.
The largest issue facing the Federal government when regulating hazardous materials is how much risk are we willing, as a society, to accept? Life is inherently risky, but the added risk of exposure to toxic chemicals is not always known or quantifiable. In regulating these substances we need to balance the need for certain chemicals in industrial or farming processes against our desire and right to a healthy environment in which to live. For the most part, hazardous wastes are formed during industrial processing. The production of military munitions, fertilizer manufacturing, paint manufacturing, and many other industries are responsible for creating hazardous waste. Because these chemicals and sludges are so harmful to the environment the Untied States Congress felt it was necessary to regulate how these wastes are treated and disposed. The "Resources Conservation and Recovery Act" (RCRA) was passed October 21, 1976. The law established guild lines on how to recycle or recover hazardous materials and return them wherever possible to the production process. It also regulates how hazardous materials can be disposed. RCRA is considered to be a "cradle to grave" law because it covers the whole life of a hazardous material, no matter where in the production or waste stream it is.
RCRA prevents open dumping of hazardous materials, but for a long time the country did not have such restrictions. The tragedy at Love Canal, New York brought to the Nation's attention what can happen at these old dumping sites. Love Canal was used as an open pit dumping ground for the Hooker Chemical Company. At the time the company followed all the laws regarding the dumping of industrial wastes. However, it was clear from the beginning that the site was toxic, for grass had trouble growing, and workers experienced chemical burns. Decades later a community was built around the dump site, complete with an elementary school. In the late 1970's it became clear to the residents that something was very wrong. The incidents of childhood asthma seemed high, women felt as if they had an unusually high miscarriage rate. And then the rain came. In 1978 there was an overly wet rainy season, and pools of black sludge began to ooze up from the ground. Children were getting chemical burns from the mud. In the ensuing years the residents of Love Canal were pitted against government agents, in an attempt to determine how toxic the site was, and if anyone should be evacuated. Eventually there were two evacuations, with the Federal government footing most of the bill.
Many in the country were outraged that a situation such as Love Canal could ever occur. To address this concern the United States Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), otherwise known as "Superfund". This law intended to identify sites that were previously contaminated with hazardous waste, and then prioritize their clean up. The designation "Superfund" came because the law enabled the EPA to being cleanup immediately using funds from a special account, and then recoup the money after liability was assessed. CERCLA was an interesting response to the problem of old, abandoned toxic waste dumps because it created a retroactive, strict liability. Even if a company had complied with the laws governing waste disposal at the time, they could still be found liable for clean up charges in the future.
It is hard to say if Superfund was a success or not. The bill has not been reauthorized since 1994, and the fund has since dried up. However, many sites have been remediated and cleaned up as a result of the law. Yet we come back to the question of how clean is clean? Do we wish to remediate these sites so that we could eat the soil? Or rather to the point where grass can grow again? Should economic considerations be used to determine how clean to make a given site? These are particularly important questions to be asked in New Jersey, where there are many contaminated sites.
CERCLA established the National Priority List, or NPL, which ranks contaminated sites around the country. According to the EPA, the NPL is used to guide the agency by establishing those sites that pose a threat to human health and the environment. Sites are ranked by the likelihood of contamination, the type of waste involved, and the proximity to humans or animal populations. The list fluctuates over time; sites that have been cleaned up are removed, sites can be added as new information comes to light, or sites can be removed because contamination is contained but not cleaned up. As contaminated sites are discovered they receive different designations. A site can be put on the NPL, it can be part of an NPL site, it can be proposed for the NPL, or simply not put on the list. In New Jersey, according to EPA numbers, as of 2007, there are 571 contaminated sites, 111 of which are on the NPL. Some of these sites have not been put on the list, due to the fact that the NPL identifies the worst sites, ones where multiple wastes have contaminated multiple environmental strata, such as ground water and soil. In Middlesex County there are 49 sites that were not put on the NPL, three sites that were removed from the list, one site that is part of an NPL site, and 14 NPL sites.
In an effort to protect the citizens of New Jersey, Senator Smith has worked hard to make sure hazardous wastes do not end up in our air and water. Nuclear wastes can be especially damaging and difficult to dispose of. Senator Smith was integral is creating the New Jersey Nuclear Waste Transportation Commission. Public Law 1987, chapter 12 creates this agency to provide the State with planning and assistance in developing transportation routes for nuclear wastes.
While nuclear wastes can have devastating effects on the environment, chemical contaminants are the most prevalent in New Jersey. Senator Smith has called for better funding of Superfund, in an effort to clean up more sites around the country. In a commentary on the Superfund Tax in 2003 the Senator had the following to say:
"Cleaning up chemical waste is a public health necessity and not something that should fall victim to irresponsible Washington politics. Any kindergartener will tell you that if you make a mess, you have to clean it up. Shifting the cost burden from the polluting industries responsible for creating the toxic waste to the taxpayers is neither fair nor sound public policy. Not only will the costs to taxpayers increase, but fewer sites will be cleaned up. This poses an unacceptable public health risk for the people of New Jersey. My colleagues in the legislature and I have introduced a resolution calling on the Bush administration and congressional leadership to reinstate the superfund tax."
To ensure that clean up efforts would continue, Senator Smith passed Public Law 2003, chapter 74. This law appropriated $40 million dollars from the Hazardous Discharge Fund of 1986 to the Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund. This allowed for cleanup at contaminated sites that might have otherwise gone unfunded.
These laws are important because clean up of contaminated sites can be very expensive. The more sites that are remediated, the cleaner the environment and the less likely of public health impacts. However, we must ask ourselves, "is clean up enough?". While we should focus our efforts on cleaning as many sites as possible, what are we doing to make sure that no new sites are created? RCRA imposes strict regulations on how, and where, hazardous wastes can be dumped. Yet, as long as industries that create hazardous wastes are in operation, there will be contaminated sites. As citizens we should educate ourselves about the products we use, and what chemical byproducts are created in the production process. This is not to say that we should cease all industry that produces or uses hazardous materials, but rather, we should be aware of what goes into the products we enjoy.