Toxic Waste Dumping

Toxic waste is waste material that can cause death, injury or birth defects to living creatures.[1] It spreads quite easily and can contaminate lakes, rivers, and the atmosphere. The term is often used interchangeably with “hazardous waste”, or discarded material that can pose a long-term risk to health or environment.

Hazardous wastes are poisonous byproducts of manufacturing, farming, city septic systems, construction, automotive garages, laboratories, hospitals, and other industries. The waste may be liquid, solid, or sludge and contain chemicals, heavy metals, radiation, dangerous pathogens, or other toxins. Even households generate hazardous waste from items such as batteries, used computer equipment, and leftover paints or pesticides.[2]

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state departments oversee the rules that regulate hazardous waste. The EPA requires that toxic waste be handled with special precautions and be disposed of in designated facilities around the country. Also, many cities in the United States have collection days where household toxic waste is gathered. Some materials that may not be accepted at regular landfills are ammunition, commercially generated waste, explosives/shock sensitive items, hypodermic needles/syringes, medical waste, radioactive materials, and smoke detectors.[3]

Toxic wastes often contain carcinogens, and exposure to these by some route, such as leakage or evaporation from the storage, causes cancer to appear at increased frequency in exposed individuals. For example, a cluster of the rare blood cancer polycythemia vera was found around a toxic waste dump site in northeast Pennsylvania in 2008.[4]

People encounter these toxins buried in the ground, in stream runoff, in groundwater that supplies drinking water, or in floodwaters, as happened after Hurricane Katrina. Some toxins, such as mercury, persist in the environment and accumulate. As a result of the bioaccumulation of mercury in both freshwater and marine ecosystems, predatory fish are a significant source of mercury in human and animal diets.[6]

Disposal is the placement of waste into or on the land. Disposal facilities are usually designed to permanently contain the waste and prevent the release of harmful pollutants to the environment. The most common hazardous waste disposal practice is placement in a land disposal unit such as a landfill, surface impoundment, waste pile, land treatment unit, or injection well. Land disposal is subject to requirements under EPA’s Land Disposal Restrictions Program.[7]

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Enforcement,.[9] The Act gives the United States Environmental Protection Agency the authority to control the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste[10] The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was followed by the Toxic Substances Control Act, which took effect on January 1, 1977. The Act authorized the EPA to secure information on all new and existing chemical substances, as well as to control any substances that were determined to cause unreasonable risk to public health or the environment.[11]

The Superfund Act is another act administered by the EPA. It contains rules about cleaning up toxic waste that was dumped illegally.[12]

There has been a long ongoing battle between communities and environmentalists versus governments and corporations about how strict and how fairly the regulations and laws are written and enforced. That battle began in North Carolina in the late summer of 1979, as EPAs TSCA regulations were being implemented. In North Carolina, 31,000 gallons of PCB-contaminated oil were deliberately dripped in a 3-foot swath along some 240 miles of rural Piedmont highways, creating the largest PCB spills in American history and a public health crisis that would have repercussions for generations to come. The PCB-contaminated material was eventually collected and buried in a landfill in Warren County, but citizens opposition, including large public demonstrations, exposed the dangers of toxic waste, the fallibility of landfills then in use, and EPA regulations allowing landfills to be built on marginal, but politically acceptable sites.

Warren County citizens argued that the toxic waste landfill regulations were based on the fundamental assumption that the EPAs conceptual dry-tomb landfill would contain the toxic waste. This assumption informed the siting of toxic waste landfills and waivers to regulations that were included in EPAs Federal Register. For example, in 1978, the base of a major toxic waste landfill could be no closer than five feet from ground water, but this regulation and others could be waived.