The Secret Life of Toxic Waste

For decades, low-income communities and communities of color have been burdened by toxic waste that lived with them in their neighborhoods. In a last-minute giveaway to polluters in 2008, the Bush administration added to their burden. Under the Definition of Solid Waste (DSW) Rule, industries that reclaimed or recycled hazardous waste were able to do so without federal oversight and often with little regard for the communities’ need for clean air and water. Industries, like the steel, chemical and pharmaceutical industries, that handle 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste a year were no longer required to meet safe operating standards or even report their activities.[i]

It was one of the last terrible actions the Bush EPA passed, and it excused thousands of companies from complying with rules that protect public health and the environment, despite a wealth of evidence that revealed the effects of deregulation—including hundreds of cases where hazardous waste recycling resulted in contamination from hazardous wastes.[ii] The change was made despite protests from state environmental regulators, the public, environmental groups and some responsible corporations.

But thankfully the fact that this was an environmental justice issue was not lost on the U.S. EPA. For the first time ever, the EPA undertook an in-depth analysis of the environmental justice impacts that result from mismanagement of hazardous wastes. The results from the analysis were alarming, among them that people of color were two times more likely to live within 3 kilometers of a hazardous waste facility as white individuals, while low-income individuals were 1.5 times as likely to live within that distance as moderate-or high-income individuals. The Obama EPA concluded that better safeguards were needed to prevent toxic releases from burdening low-income communities and communities of color. Thus in June, EPA proposed significant reforms to this Bush-era loophole. If this rule is finalized, companies that recycle hazardous waste would have to comply with federal requirements to ensure safe containment and handling of these dangerous materials.

But even more needs to be done to protect vulnerable communities from the most dangerous chemicals regulated by EPA. At the second of two public hearings this week in Chicago, the public can voice their support for stronger protections against hazardous waste for the health of their neighborhoods.

Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel, Earthjustice,

Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm that specializes in cases protecting natural resources, safeguarding public health, and promoting clean energy. The firm has been a critical player in a number of important, precedent-setting cases including forcing the EPA to fight global warming by limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the first Supreme Court case to ever address the issue of climate change.

[i] Revisions to the Definition of Solid Waste; Final Rule, 73 Fed. Reg. 64668 (Oct. 30, 2008)

[ii]See EPA, An Assessment of Environmental Problems Associated with Recycling of Hazardous Secondary Materials, available at (“Assessment of Environmental Problems”).

Posted on Sep 19, 2011