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  Environmental Policy Issues

Waste Management Issues
(Released August 1998)


Review Article

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 organization.

© Copyright 1998, All Rights Reserved, CSA


CRS Reports

Solid Waste Issues in the 105th Congress


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 The amendment was withdrawn before being voted on, but may signal the Senator's intent to attach such an amendment to other moving legislation.

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 conditions.

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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Superfund Reauthorization Issues in the 105th Congress


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 popular.

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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Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal


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 the environment.

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% from FY1998.

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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Civilian Nuclear Spent Fuel Temporary Storage Options

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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