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Solid Waste Update (8-15-00)

Similar to several other issues concerning the balance between state and federal oversight, solid waste management derailed in the last two Congresses, while the debate continued in state and federal courts.  There are three major areas of concern when discussing solid waste management: interstate commerce, remediation of hazardous materials, and ratification of the Basel Convention on the Control of the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal.  Most of the discussion on hazardous waste is dealt with under Superfund and Brownfields legislation (more information on these issues is available at AGI's Superfund Update webpage), with the notable exception of revising Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations to exempt certain low-risk wastes generated by remediation of old waste sites under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).  The remaining debate circles around managing municipal solid waste (MSW).   Currently, congressional action on MSW issues is limited and sparse.  Legislation to allow states the power to ban or restrict imports of solid waste, giving communities the power to direct their instate waste to specific landfills (aka flow control), has been introduced again in the 106th Congress.  Such bills have occasionally popped up in the past, but have never made it past both the Senate and the House.   A number of bills have been introduced this Congress that address different aspects of solid waste, but so far they have gathered little momentum.

Most Recent Action
The National Academies' National Research Council released a report on the long-term management of Department of Energy (DOE) legacy waste sites.  Legacy sites are nuclear weapons sites contaminated by nuclear, solid, and hazardous waste leftover from the Cold War arms race.  Under DOE's stewardship, contamination or waste stored on site would be monitored by institutional controls such as fences, surveillance, and examination of future uses of the site and adjoining land.  The council found that there is no evidence that DOE is prepared to act as steward to 109 of the 150 sites that will never be clean enough for unrestricted use.  DOE must plan to revisit these residually contaminated sites in the future as technological remediation capabilities improve.  The committee recommends that the recently established DOE Office of Long-Term Stewardship adopt an approach which avoids foreclosing future options, involves the public in decision-making, and plans for the failure of waste isolation mechanisms.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on June 17, 1999 to look at the interstate transportation of municipal waste and flow control.  Chairman John Chaffee (former R-RI) opened the hearing on S.533, S.663, and S.872 by saying: "Now, interstate waste and flow control aren't new issues for the Committee. Concerns about increased interstate shipments of solid waste and the potentially adverse economic impacts of flow control have been around for almost a decade. And this Committee, the full Senate, and the House have all tried on several occasions to address those concerns through federal legislation. We've never succeeded."  The well attended hearing hosted a long list of witnesses, including the respective bill authors and a slew of issue constituents.  The complete text of opening statements and prepared witness testimony is available on the Environment and Public Works Committee website.

Previous Action in the 106th Congress
The June 17, 1999 hearing is the first one of the 106th Congress, with the exception of hearings on Superfund and Brownfields that are covered in AGI's Superfund Update webpage.  In total, eighteen bills on solid waste management have been introduced during this Congress.  Most bills deal with amending the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)* , the most comprehensive law governing solid waste management.  Below is a list of current bills and their status:

The Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 governs the domestic management of solid and hazardous waste.  It was comprehensively amended in 1976 by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).  Since then, the convention is to refer the former as RCRA.  For a full review of solid waste issues and more background into the subject, see the Congressional Research Service Issue Brief Solid Waste Issues in the 106th Congress (  Other Congressional Research Service reports on solid waste, including several on hazardous waste, are available at the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) website.

Sources: Environmental and Energy Study Institute, Committee for the National Institute for the Environment, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee website, Library of Congress, and the National Academies.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs, and AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Interns Scott Broadwell and Audrey Slesinger.

Last updated August 15, 2000.

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