Environment might benefit by easing waste rule

by Alexander Volokh
Patriot (Harrisburg, Pa.), May 17, 1996

Many Pennsylvania environmentalists are up in arms against a Department of Environmental Protection proposal to allow some small businesses to dispose of hazardous waste in municipal landfills. The DEP proposal would, following U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, create a new category of conditionally exempt small quantity generators who would be allowed to dump up to 220 pounds of hazardous waste each month in municipal or private landfills.

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, decrying what they view as the pro-business, anti-environment zeal of the Ridge administration, are squarely against it. The DEP proposal will certainly benefit Pennsylvania business and consumers. Surprisingly, though, it may actually help the environment, too.

Current Pennsylvania law recognizes two categories of generators -- small generators, which produce less than 2,205 pounds of hazardous waste a month, and large generators, which produce more. The Allentown Morning Call has called the DEP proposal "environmental pandering," on the philosophy that more stringent environmental standards are always better for the environment.

But current practice is a classic illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences. According to the DEP, the costs of shipping hazardous waste to an out-of-state hazardous waste landfill, or to a licensed treatment facility, are so high that some companies just dispose of their waste illegally. Because of strict regulations, they dump their waste down the drain or in an abandoned field.

The idea that deregulation can actually help, not hurt, the environment is rarely voiced. But most states -- sometimes unwittingly -- practice this philosophy every day, preventing environmental harm by smartly choosing not to regulate. Most states, including Pennsylvania, don't regulate used oil as a hazardous waste. (California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont do.) The EPA delisted used oil as a hazardous waste in 1986, realizing that complicated and expensive handling requirements might impel more people to dump it down the drain. [In 1988, the EPA estimated that 95 percent of “do-it- yourselfer” oil was illegally dumped. Some estimates put the total amount of illegally dumped used oil at 200 million to 450 million gallons every year, equivalent in volume to 20 to 45 times the Exxon Valdez spill.]1

The DEP estimates that companies that would qualify as "conditionally exempt" produce about 5,000 to 6,000 tons of hazardous waste a year, and not all of that would be thrown away (some of it, like lead acid batteries, is already recycled). All of this is a drop in the bucket compared to the 18 million tons of trash taken in by the state's 51 private and municipal landfills. Moreover, the environmental risks of adopting such a rule are likely to be minimal. Municipal waste landfills, which are equipped with double liners, leachate collection systems (which prevent "garbage juice" from leaking out), and groundwater monitors, are quite similar to hazard