State officials see it as a common-sense policy;
environmentalists fear a boost in carelessness.
By Tammy Webber
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
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
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,
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
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
"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,
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
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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