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Waste cleanup changes stir concern

Waste cleanup changes stir concern

State officials see it as a common-sense policy; environmentalists fear a boost in carelessness.

Indy Star

September 03, 2002

State environmental officials will soon implement a policy that will allow some hazardous waste to remain in soil and groundwater, raising a question among industry groups and environmentalists: How clean is clean enough?

The policy -- which could save millions of dollars for everyone from dry cleaners to manufacturers -- is aimed primarily at waste spilled by companies, said Bruce Palin, deputy assistant commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's office of land quality.

Now, any amount of waste listed as hazardous by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must be completely removed from a spill area. The soil is sent to a hazardous waste disposal site, a process Palin said can be expensive.

But the new policy will allow some spills to go without cleanup if they are found to pose no threat to people's health, under standards adopted by the state last year.

Environmentalists worry that such a policy might eliminate incentives for businesses to avoid spills.

Palin did not know whether any sites would immediately be affected by the policy. The department receives reports of more than 3,000 spills a year, but fewer than 5 percent contain hazardous waste, he said. The policy will not apply to intentional dumping.

Businesses may be fined if they don't report a spill. Whether they are fined for the spill itself is determined on a case-by-case basis, but most fines result from spills that enter a waterway or result in fish kills, he said.

Under the new policy, as long as the pollution is within levels thought to be safe for residential areas, the soil or water could be determined to be free of hazardous waste. If soil contamination exceeds those standards but is below industrial standards, the tainted soil could be sent to a solid waste landfill instead of a hazardous waste landfill, Palin said.

Manufacturers and state officials say it's a common-sense approach to handling hazardous waste and avoids the expense of excavating and removing material that might not be harmful.

Palin said the proposed policy recognizes that "just because you spilled doesn't mean the soil is toxic."

For example, metal-plating waste might be considered hazardous because studies once showed it contained high levels of chromium. But because of improved methods, Palin said, the same plating waste might no longer have as much chromium.

The state Solid Waste Board will hold a public hearing on the policy Sept. 17. The policy will automatically take effect 30 days later.

The Department of Environmental Management already is using the same standards to determine the cleanup levels required at regulated waste sites, such as landfills, and for leaking underground storage tanks.

Similar policies have been adopted in other states, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determines cleanup levels at Superfund sites based on risk.

But environmentalists worry that the state's new policy goes beyond addressing existing pollution. It could make it easy for industries to contaminate a site, then not be held responsible for cleaning it up, said Rae Schnapp, water policy director at the Hoosier Environmental Council.

"Generally speaking, I think risk-based approaches make sense for prioritizing cleanup of sites that are already contaminated," she said. "But my big concern is that it is going to allow future contamination.

"I'm afraid it will give them an out if they're careless, with no incentive to be careful."

Under Indiana's proposal, businesses that want to be exempt from cleaning up a spill will be required to obtain state certification that the pollution meets residential health standards, Palin said.

Matthew Hale, deputy director of EPA's office of solid waste, said many states have formally adopted risk-based standards for hazardous waste in recent years. It's an approach that EPA endorses as long as the state standards are at least as stringent as the federal agency's, he said.

Patrick Bennett, director of environmental affairs for the Indiana Manufacturers Association, said if an industrial site is unlikely to be used for any other purpose, it doesn't make sense to clean it up to residential standards.

But Ed Hopkins, director of environmental quality for the national Sierra Club, said it might be impossible for states to guarantee that industrial sites would never be used for any other purpose. And he fears that, although Indiana would apply residential standards to spills, the policy "might have the perverse incentive of making a company less interested in preventing spills."

"Encouraging poor safety practices is not something we think state regulators should be in the business of doing," he said.

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