The first Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report, Solid Waste Issues
in the 105th Congress (May 14, 1998) summarizes issues
currently being addressed by the U.S. Congress including: Trends
in Municipal Solid Waste Management (MSW), the Federal Role in
MSW Management, and Interstate Shipment of Waste.
The second CRS report, Superfund
Reauthorization Issues in the 105th Congress (April 2, 1998)
summarizes the Congress's consideration of reforming the main law
The third and fourth CRS reports, Civilian Nuclear
Waste Disposal (June 15, 1998) and Civilian Nuclear Spent Fuel Temporary Storage Options (March
27, 1998) address one high profile waste issue that appears to
be intensifying without any resolution in sight.
The Congressional Research Service is an arm of the Library of
Congress and is no way affiliated with the CNIE, CSA or any other
Amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the
principal federal law governing solid and hazardous waste management,
are among the environmental concerns that could be on the agenda
during the remaining days of the 105th Congress. Bills to exempt
from hazardous waste management requirements certain wastes generated
by remediation of old waste sites are considered a possibility,
although none had been introduced as of July 1. Another issue
that might be considered is whether states and local governments
should be given authority to restrict interstate commerce in waste
both by limiting imports and by designating where locally generated
waste must be disposed ("flow control"). At least 10
bills have been introduced addressing these issues. The Senate
Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing March 18,
1997, but there has been no further committee action. On June
18, 1998, Senator Dan Coats offered an amendment on interstate
waste (S.Amdt. 2176) to the Energy and Water Development Appropriations
bill. The amendment was withdrawn before being voted on, but may
signal the Senator's intent to attach such an amendment to other
Solid waste issues were a major public concern for much of the
last decade. Since 1984, 72% of the nation's municipal landfills
have closed; the burning of municipal solid waste to generate
steam or electricity has increased sixfold; and nearly 9,000 local
governments have begun curbside collection of recyclable materials.
The lead role in solid waste management is played by state and
local governments. They decide how waste will be managed -- whether
by landfill, incineration, recycling, compost, or some combination
-- and set standards for the resulting facilities. Funding, too,
comes almost exclusively from state and local sources.Nevertheless,
the federal government has played an increasing role in solid
waste management, setting minimum national standards for landfills
and incinerators under the Resource Conservation and Recovery
Act and Clean Air Act, and promoting recycling through the use
of federal procurement policy.
Federal court rulings have also had a profound impact on waste
management programs. In a series of cases, the courts have held
that shipments of waste are protected under the interstate commerce
clause of the Constitution. With few exceptions, a state may not
prohibit waste shipments or impose fees on out-of-state waste,
nor may it designate where privately collected waste must be disposed.
These decisions have had a broad impact on state and local ability
to plan the future management of solid waste and to finance existing
waste management programs.
In overturning interstate waste and flow control laws, the courts
have made clear that the Constitution does not prevent Congress
itself from restricting commerce or from authorizing states or
local governments to do so. What is prohibited is state or local
action in the absence of congressional authorization. Bills being
considered in Congress would provide that authority under specified
The 105th Congress might also consider changes in the Leaking
Underground Storage Tank (LUST) cleanup program. H.R. 688, a bill
affecting EPA's discretion and expanding state authority over
the use of LUST Trust Fund money, passed the House April 23, 1997.
There has been no action in the Senate.
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Reauthorizing the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup law remains
a top environmental priority in the second session of the 105th
Congress, according to congressional leaders and the subcommittees
with jurisdiction. Chairmen of the three committees of jurisdiction
have introduced comprehensive reauthorization bills -- S. 8, H.R.
2727, H.R. 3000; hearings have been held on all three, S. 8 has
been ordered reported, and H.R. 2727 has been approved by subcommittee.
The law's title is the Comprehensive Environmental Response,
Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA, P.L. 96-510).
As of September 1997, 16 years after the law's enactment, 447
sites (33%) placed on the Superfund's National Priorities List
(NPL) had been removed to the Construction Completed List. The
program has been accused of being slow, ineffective, and expensive.
Many feel its liability system is unfair; the lack of agreement
on new liability provisions has impeded congressional action.
CERCLA's broad liability scheme has been the most difficult reauthorization
issue. The average cost of cleanup is about $30 million, a large
enough amount to make it worthwhile for parties to pursue legal
means to spread the costs rather than to settle. So at large sites,
where it is not unusual for there to be over a hundred potentially
responsible parties, there can be a commensurate amount of expensive
negotiation and litigation. This has been especially burdensome
on small businesses and other minor parties.The law's cleanup
standards and remedy selection procedures are also controversial.
Requirements for treatment, permanence, and the application of
both federal and state regulations have led to what some critics
characterize as overly strict risk assessment, and increased costs
and delay at many sites. Business interests want to limit the
scope of natural resource damages that can be assessed against
them by putting a cap on the amount of such awards.
A number of states want to have full delegation of the authorities
in CERCLA, including remedy selection, control over CERCLA's monies,
and the determination of what sites go on and off the NPL. The
popular brownfields program, aimed at low-level contaminated sites
with economic development potential, received increased funding
in 1998 and is addressed in three of the comprehensive bills and
other legislation. Also state voluntary cleanup programs are becoming
EPA's FY1999 Superfund budget request is $2.1 billion. Senate
and House Appropriations Committees approved $1.5 billion. The
Superfund FY1998 appropriation is $1.5 billion, although $100
million will not be available until September 1, 1998 (P.L. 105-65).
The authority to collect the taxes that support the trust fund
ended in 1995; a new General Accounting Office study says there
is enough in the trust fund to last through FY 1999. In Superfund
actions this Congress, the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-34)
includes a $417 million tax break for cleaning up brownfields,
permitting same-year deduction of cleanup costs.
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Management of civilian radioactive waste has posed difficult
issues for Congress since the beginning of the nuclear power industry
in the 1950s. Although federal policy is based on the premise
that nuclear waste can be disposed of safely, new storage and
disposal facilities for all types of radioactive waste have frequently
been delayed or blocked by concerns about safety, health, and
Civilian radioactive waste ranges from the highly radioactive
spent fuel from nuclear power plants to mildly radioactive uranium
mill tailings from the processing of uranium ore. Most of the
debate over civilian waste disposal focuses on spent fuel and
on "low level" waste from nuclear power plants, medical
institutions, civilian research facilities, and industry.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) calls for disposal
of spent nuclear fuel in a repository in a deep geologic formation
that is unlikely to be disturbed for thousands of years. NWPA
established an office in the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop
such a repository and required the program's civilian costs to
be covered by a fee on nuclear-generated electricity. Amendments
to NWPA in 1987 restricted DOE's repository site studies to Yucca
Mountain in Nevada.
DOE is studying numerous scientific issues in determining the
suitability of Yucca Mountain for a nuclear waste repository,
which must be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Questions about the site include the likelihood of earthquakes,
volcanoes, groundwater contamination, and human intrusion.
NWPA's goal for loading waste into the repository is 1998, but
DOE does not expect to open the facility until 2010 at the earliest.
DOE plans to complete a "viability assessment" of the
Yucca Mountain site by Sept. 30, 1998, and apply for a license
in 2002 to build the repository. The FY1999 funding request for
the program, $380 million, represents an increase of nearly 10%
Legislation passed by the Senate April 15, 1997 (S. 104) would
establish an interim waste storage facility near Yucca Mountain.
Similar legislation (H.R. 1270) was approved by the House on October
30, 1997. President Clinton has threatened to veto either version
of the measure, objecting to the potential siting of a nuclear
waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain even if the site were
found unsuitable for permanent disposal.
Low-level waste is a state disposal responsibility under the
Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980. States are authorized
to form regional disposal compacts that, upon approval by Congress,
were allowed to restrict the import of low-level waste from states
outside those compacts beginning in 1993.
Nine such compacts have been approved by Congress. But only two
commercial low-level waste sites are currently operating, in the
states of Washington and South Carolina, and the Washington facility
is accepting waste just from within the Northwest and Rocky Mountain
regional compacts. A planned disposal facility in California cannot
begin operating until the site is transferred to the State from
the Department of the Interior, which is requiring additional
suitability tests before making a final decision.
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Introduction and Overview
When Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA,
P.L. 97-425), the Department of Energy (DOE) was given more than
15 years to begin taking highly radioactive spent fuel from commercial
nuclear power plants. But DOE proved unable to open a waste facility
by the NWPA deadline of January 31, 1998. Repeated delays have
pushed back the scheduled opening of a permanent underground nuclear
waste repository to 2010, and DOE appears to be barred by NWPA
from starting to build a temporary storage facility for commercial
spent fuel until the permanent repository is licensed for construction.
Nuclear utilities and state utility regulators are urging Congress
to authorize DOE to construct an interim storage facility to receive
spent fuel from nuclear plants as soon as possible after the 1998
deadline. They note that spent fuel storage pools at nuclear power
plants are filling up, a situation that could eventually require
the construction of additional storage capacity at most of the
nation's 66 operating reactor sites. In the 105th Congress, bills
have been approved by the Senate (S. 104) and the House (H.R.
1270) to construct a federal interim storage facility near Yucca
Mountain, Nevada, the site of DOE's planned permanent underground
nuclear waste repository.
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