The rule, which went into effect in the closing days of the last administration, stripped federal oversight of recyclers who handle 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste generated by steel, chemical, pharmaceutical and other industrial companies each year.
As the maps here show, these hazardous waste recyclers are located predominantly in low-income communities and communities of color. Concerned about the increased risk these communities now face, environmental justice advocates testified at today's EPA public hearing at the agency's headquarters.
Cancer survivor Sheila Holt-Orsted made the trip from her cancer-riddled community in Dixon County, Tennessee, where the nearby county landfill was home to toxic waste dumping.
"I showed up today so that EPA could put a face to this issue," said Holt-Orsted, who has seen her mother, father, sister, cousins, aunts, and uncles suffer from cancer and other illnesses believed to be caused by the nearby contamination. "I'm concerned that this rule may endanger the health and environment that our country's hazardous waste laws were designed to protect. I don't want any other community to suffer as my family has suffered."
Advocates are closely watching the administration's response, saying it represents the first test of the new EPA's approach toward environmental policies which burden low income and communities of color.
"We should not forget that some 27 years ago, the environmental justice movement was born after a sham recycler dumped PCB-laced oils along the roads in North Carolina which eventually ended up in a majority African-American community," said Dr. Robert Bullard, director of Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark University, and author of Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality. "This new rule puts in jeopardy many of the communities we have found to be disproportionately burdened by environmental contamination."
The rule specifically applies to hazardous waste recyclers -- already acknowledged by EPA to be a notoriously unstable and dangerous industry: recent EPA studies identify hundreds of contaminated sites from hazardous waste recycling operations in 38 states, including more than 100 Superfund sites, totaling more than $436 million in cleanup costs. (Regional maps detailing the location of these Superfund sites with corresponding socio-economic data are here. The EPA study summary is here. A state-by-state table is here. Detailed site profiles are here)
"This loophole represents the largest hazardous waste rollback since the passage of laws protecting the public from hazardous waste in 1976," said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, who filed a lawsuit in federal court in January challenging the midnight rulemaking by the Bush administration. "Before this change, these facilities had to follow strict rules designed to keep communities safe: closely tracking hazardous waste, storing it in clearly-labeled, airtight and leak-proof containers. But not any more."
EPA officials have acknowledged that the Bush rule change was a hasty one. In the rush to finalize it, the officials failed to fully comply with the law: the new rule violates a Clinton-era executive order requiring federal agencies to address the adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on communities of color and low-income populations.
"This rule would redistribute extremely harmful toxic substances to places where oversight is lax or nonexistent," said Vernice Miller-Travis, vice chair of the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities. "This is a critical issue. The health of thousands of communities across the country hangs in the balance."
The hazardous waste that will slip through this loophole contains such dangerous chemicals as solvents, such as benzene, toluene, TCE and perchlorate that cause cancer, birth defects, lupus and immune disorders; and metals such as lead, hexavalent chromium, mercury and arsenic -- which are potent neurotoxins and carcinogens.
"There is no principled basis to relax these hazardous waste regulations," said Jan Schlichtmann, founder of The Civil Action Center and the attorney who John Travolta's character in the feature-length film A Civil Action was based on. "If anyone thinks we should go back to a time of less hazardous waste regulation, they should speak to the parents in the cities of Woburn, Massachusetts and Toms River, New Jersey, where contaminants polluted the city drinking water and caused a leukemia epidemic of biblical proportions."
More than 5,600 facilities involved in hazardous waste recycling are expected to take advantage of the loophole -- which the government estimates will save each facility about $17,000 a year.
For background documents, including a 2007 EPA study summarizing problems with hazardous waste recycling operations, a map of hazardous waste facilities with bad track records, and a state-by-state table of polluted hazardous waste recycling sites, please visit: http://www.earthjustice.org/library/features/toxic-waste-speak-out.html