A large coalition of environmental justice, public health and green organizations in a letter Thursday called on President Obama to fulfill a consent decree by finalizing a proposed rule that would strengthen safeguards governing billions of pounds of hazardous waste that were excluded from regulation in 2008.
“The undersigned individuals and organizations … are committed to serving environmental justice and protecting human health and the environment,” the letter stated. “We therefore view with great alarm the continuing lack of adequate regulation of hazardous waste facilities in our communities.”
“The Obama Administration missed its deadline for restoring critical protections to the nation’s most vulnerable communities,” says Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice. “As a result, dangerous hazardous waste facilities are operating without adequate oversight—the nation deserves better, and the law requires it.”
The letter signed by some 200 organizations and individuals from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, follows repeated delays by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Office of Management and Budget in finalizing a rule that would strengthen the handling of hazardous waste.
In 2008, under President George W. Bush’s Definition of Solid Waste (DSW) rule, 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste were no longer subject to strict cradle-to-grave safeguards required since 1976 under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Under the Bush DSW rule, thousands of companies that reclaim hazardous waste were relieved from complying with more protective standards.
Reclamation and “recycling” of hazardous waste has been a serious concern for decades. PCB-contaminated soil, which resulted from a so-called “recycling” project, was dumped in a rural, predominantly African-American county in North Carolina in the early 1980s and launched the environmental justice movement. Since 1982, hazardous waste recycling has polluted more than 200 sites, including many on the Superfund National Priority List, which identifies the worst toxic waste sites in the nation.
As a result of Bush’s Definition of Solid Waste rule, hazardous waste—such as benzene, toluene, ttrichloroethylene, and heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury—faced significantly less stringent regulation. These hazardous substances have been linked to cancer, birth defects, immune disorders and lupus, among other illnesses.
Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club’s Director of Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program, criticized the Obama administration for delaying finalization of the rule. “The Obama Administration needs to end the delay to finalize the Definition of Solid Waste rule immediately,” said Fields.
“We were cheered when the EPA published its excellent environmental justice analysis for this rule, but that was years ago. Communities living with the burden of secondary hazardous waste, around the country, cannot wait any longer for this rulemaking. The Obama Administration needs to finish the job now!"
In a letter sent Thursday, both large and small community-based groups around the nation said: “Further delay is unacceptable while fires rage at scrap metal facilities in environmental justice communities, and toxic releases to air and water poison fence-line neighborhoods at recycling operations.”
Earthjustice filed a lawsuit over the solid waste rule in 2009 because of the absence of critical standards to protect communities that host the dangerous facilities. According to a 2010 consent agreement, EPA was required to publish a new Definition of Solid Waste rule by December 2012.
In 2011, the EPA proposed a rule that restored many of the protections that were removed under Bush. The Agency also completed its first-ever environmental justice analysis, finding the rule disproportionately impacted communities of color and low-income communities.
But the EPA has never finalized the rule despite the requirements of the consent agreement.
On March 15, the Office of Management and Budget finally began its regulatory review of the rule and was required to complete the review within 90 days but failed to do so. The groups are calling on Obama to cease the series of delays finalize the rule by July 11.
"EPA's environmental justice analysis is unprecedented and extremely important," said Dr. Robert Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. "It shows the issue of environmental justice was given serious consideration. We would hope that environmental justice in all EPA rulemakings and all programs would be given the same level of priority. It is essential that communities don't become the dumping ground for toxic waste and for sham recycling operations," he said.