The Idaho Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has decided to continue its five-year-old revenue sharing plan for U S WEST Communications, a local exchange telephone carrier, for one year. It...
Efforts to site new facilities for the disposal of hazardous waste (HW) and radioactive waste have met with utter paralysis. HW disposal companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to site new landfills and incinerators for this waste, but most of this money has gone down the drain. Since the enactment of the chief federal law on HW, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA), only one new HW landfill has opened on a new site in the United States (in prophetically named Last Chance, CO). Siting attempts for nuclear waste have been just as fruitless; except for one small facility in the Utah desert, no new radioactive waste disposal sites have opened since the late 1960s.
This siting impasse is unnecessary. It results from a little-noticed structural flaw in our system of environmental law, and from a misunderstanding of the psychology of communities faced with facilities they perceive as dangerous.
The structural flaw is that we regulate every different kind of waste stream separately. Starting with nonradioactive wastes, there are RCRA hazardous wastes; remedial waste from the cleanup of Superfund and other contaminated civilian sites; remedial waste from the cleanup of RCRA waste disposal sites; contaminated soil from underground storage tank cleanups; contamination from old military facilities; old chemical weapons; hazardous waste from the demolition of buildings and structures, such as asbestos, lead, and polychlorinated biphenyls; non-RCRA industrial wastes; wastes from mining and from oil and gas extraction; sewage sludge; ash from air-pollution control devices and incinerators; and medical waste.
There are almost as many varieties of radioactive waste: high-level and
transuranic waste from nuclear weapons manufacture; spent-fuel rods from nuclear power plants; low-level waste from nuclear power plants and from medical, scientific, and industrial applications; cleanup waste from the facilities where nuclear weapons were made; decommissioned nuclear warheads; shutdown nuclear power plants; and uranium mill tailings.
In all, there are almost two dozen waste streams (not including ordinary municipal garbage, which is a separate problem). Every one of them has its own regulatory scheme and siting mechanism. This fragmented system interacts explosively with the fundamental political impulse that in different contexts is called nationalism or separatism or isolationism. A country or state does not want orders or problems imposed from outside. So it is with waste disposal. Communities are often willing to handle their own waste, but they don't want anyone else's. It has been possible (em not easy, but possible (em to site new landfills and incinerators for municipal solid waste, but nearly impossible to site facilities for radioactive and hazardous waste, because economies of scale make it necessary for each facility to accept waste from a multistate area.
Take the example of my home state, New York. We have the only commercial HW landfill in the northeast United States. New York is furious at the inequity of being the region's dumping ground, and has gone to federal court to try to correct that inequity. Yet, at the same time, we sent our low-level radioactive waste to South Carolina (until that state shut its borders).