EPA Faces Dilemma on Where
to Deposit Toxins It Must
Remove From Waste Sites

    WASHINGTON - Lee Thomas, the federal official in charge of cleaning up toxic chemical dumps, is wrestling with a little-known but bewildering dilemma: where to put the poisonous stuff removed from the dumps.
    The Environmental Protection Agency plans to spend billions of dollars in the next few years to identify the most hazardous abandoned waste sites in each state and to make them safe. Congress, state regulators and environmental groups all agree about the urgency of The cleanup effort. But when the work gets under way, Mr. Thomas and other senior EPA officials don't expect to have enough reliable. environmentally safe places to dispose of all the dangerous materials.
    In fact, at least one site where hazardous wastes were taken is itself a possible target for a major cleanup under the superfund law because of leaching chemicals. And perhaps more than 20 sites that receive toxic wastes now are suspected or leaking or using poor monitoring systems.

    This threatens to be the ultimate irony for the EPA, which has been attacked by lawmakers and others for moving too slowly to protect the public from such pollution. Taxpayers may pay to have tons of waste dug up at hundreds of sites nationwide, only to end up with some or the same contaminants leaking out of landfills in other areas; there they could pose equally serious health and environmental hazards including threats to underground water supplies.
    The EPA, Mr. Thomas says, faces "a dilemma of wanting to move ahead and clean up as many sites as possible without having too many good options of where to put the wastes." He describes the problem as "one of the agency's biggest concerns.
    After months of deliberation and prodding from Congress, EPA policy makers This week took the first tentative steps to make sure that landfills with major pollution violations, large outstanding fines or other obvious shortcomings don't receive any more toxic material from federally funded cleanup operations. The new guidelines aren't expected to become final for at least several months, and many critics argue they aren't stringent enough.
    Meanwhile, the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the staffs of at least two House subcommittees are investigating the issue. They are focusing on how administrative bottlenecks, technical difficulties and conflicts between state and federal enforcement procedures create loopholes permitting unsafe disposal of hazardous chemicals.
    The BKK landfill. located in a corner of a residential neighborhood of West Covina, Calif.. illustrates the problems that prompted the flurry of investigations.
    Since 1978. the EPA and California have dumped a total of 11 million gallons of hazardous wastes Into the BKK landfill--wastes resulting from cleanup operations at the Stringfellow dump near Riverside, Calif. BKK'S management maintained--and until recently. state and federal officials agreed--that there was an adequate system to collect chemicals leaching from the site. But earlier this year, after contaminated groundwater was detected outside the landfill, state and federal environmental officials banned further disposal of any liquid wastes there. Now, there is no landfill authorized to dispose of Superfund wastes In the region consisting of California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii.
    Moreover. says Keith Takata, chief of hazardous waste cleanup in the EPA's San Francisco regional office, BKK itself "may eventually become a Superfund site" requiring federal remedial action. "We really don't know the extent of the problem."
    A BKK Corp. attorney says the odds of the landfill becoming a Superfund site are "remote." He adds that the ground water contamination detected so fat is "very slight."
    The agency's enforcement records are filled with similar stories. EPA officials confirm that at least 10--and perhaps more than 20--of the 70 other sites that received Superfund wastes are suspected of leaking or using inadequate underground pollution monitoring wells and control systems. A large landfill near Belleville, Mich., operated by Wayne Disposal Inc., and another facility in Calumet City. Ill., operated by Waste Management Inc., have been warned by the agency about ground-water monitoring violations, a step that could lead to fines or other enforcement action.
    A Wayne Disposal official, who calls the violation merely "technical," says the EPA is concerned about fluctuating alkalinity in wells at the Belleville landfill. Waste Management officials say they received notices of violations for the Calumet City site last year hut those violations have since been corrected. The EPA says its most recent records. as of March, show violations at the site.
    The EPA hasn't released specific enforcement information about most of the other sites under review. However, a recent internal memo from the Office of Technology Assessment circulating on Capitol Hill contends that a Baton Rouge, La., landfill owned by Rollins Environmental Services Inc., and another Waste Management disposal site in Joliet, Ill., shouldn't be allowed to receive superfund wastes because they aren't in compliance with federal regulations.
    A Rollins official says of the memo's contention, "We've received no correspondence to that effect." Leaks have forced the company to exhume waste from old disposal trenches and to pump up contaminated ground water at the Baton Rouge site, the official says. Waste Management officials say a new ground water system has been installed at Joliet and state and federal regulators haven't Indicated that violations exist.
    The congressional memo, drafted by William Sanjour, a veteran EPA hazardous-waste official on temporary assignment to the congressional office, says that regional EPA offices aren't providing "the minimum oversight" necessary to "make a reasonable determination of whether a site is leaking." Mr. Sanjour also challenges EPA arguments that disposal of Superfund waste at many of the sites was unavoidable because they involved "emergency" cleanups and alternate methods could have endangered public health.
    As head of the agency's hazardous waste damage assessment program during the mid-1970s, Mr. Sanjour points out in his memo. "I know .that EPA was well aware of many of these sites" back then. Simply "calling it an 'emergency response' doesn't explain why these wastes weren't incinerated, or otherwise treated" instead of moved to another potentially leaking dump, the memo concludes. Mr. Sanjour declines comment.
    Top EPA officials concede there has been a problem. The draft document proposed by Mr. Thomas "encourages the use of alternatives to land disposal. whenever feasible,"even though they are much more expensive. And it forcefully argues that chemical treatment or incineration "can be more protective of public health and the environment. "If a landfill is to be used anyway, the new guidelines encourage "on site inspection."
    For many critics. though. the proposed changes don't address fundamental flaws in the entire system of federal hazardous-waste laws and regulations. Under the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act, existing landfills can avoid, at least temporarily, installation of expensive, state-of-the-art pollution controls. GAO investigators have asserted that more than two-thirds of the so-called "interim status" landfills they surveyed were in violation of some government regulations.

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