Who Will Protect Our Communities From Hazardous Waste?
The Metamora Landfill Superfund site in Michigan. Photo credit: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
Anyone feel like allowing 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste into their community? I'm guessing no, but unfortunately there is a loophole allowing just that sort of dangerous practice to happen. On their way out, the Bush administration passed an eleventh-hour rule letting loose these million tons of hazardous waste on our communities.
Why is this relevant right now? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently reconsidering their hazardous waste standards and now's the time to send in our comments calling for stronger standards that don't expose our communities to these risks.The current loopholes let polluters around the country exploit our neighborhoods, turning over hazardous waste to unlicensed fly-by-night contractors, now free to dump truckloads of poison-filled waste drums and tanks.
According to the EPA these hazardous waste sites are more likely to be located in our nation's lowest income communities and near the homes of people of color. Our friends at Earthjustice found similar results: People of color are twice as likely as white individuals to live within two miles of a hazardous waste facility. Low-income individuals are 1.5 times as likely as moderate- or high-income individuals to live within two miles of a hazardous waste facility.
Just look at Chicago, where the EPA says hazardous waste recycling by industrial facilities in two southeastern Chicago zip codes (60617 and 60633) has caused dangerous exposure to toxic chemicals.
In those two zip code areas are 13 sites that have required clean up under EPA's Superfund program. According to the most recent available Census data, the residents of 60617 are 77% people of color, and the residents of 60633 are 34% people of color.
"Sierra Club is working closely with the environmental justice organizations in the neighborhoods Pilsen, Little Village and in Southeast Chicago to protect their communities from pollution from coal-fired power plants, coal gasification plants and coal-fired cement kilns," said Becki Clayborn, a Sierra Club organizer in Chicago. "These neighborhoods are disproportionately affected - or dumped on - in many different ways.
"There are currently as many as 23 industries in these zip codes that EPA has exempted from hazardous waste controls, and these sites therefore may currently be operating under federal hazardous waste recycling exclusions. Consequently, these facilities may recycle hazardous materials without proper safety precautions, including proper containment of hazardous materials. EPA must close the gap in federal regulations that allows companies to recycle hazardous materials without adequate safeguards."
Nationwide, EPA documented 218 sites contaminated by hazardous waste recycling where air, groundwater, soil, and surface water were contaminated by highly dangerous substances during hazardous waste recycling operations, requiring state or federal hazardous waste cleanup, often under Superfund authority.
Thankfully, activists in affected communities and beyond have already spoken up - that's why EPA is following up on these standards. Thanks to you, this is one of the few rules that EPA has been following up due to the pressure of the environmental justice communities. This is a step in the right direction for the EPA in terms of completing the first-ever substantive environmental justice analysis.
However, to truly set a protective standard, the EPA needs to improve several elements of the proposal. EPA must:
- Require permitting for all hazardous waste recycling activities.
- Require adequate and enforceable standards for storage of hazardous waste to prevent releases.
- Require transparency and reporting. Communities have the right to know the quantity and identity of hazardous waste that is stored and recycled in their communities and what safeguards are being taken to prevent releases.
- Require safety in transport of hazardous waste. Hazardous waste destined for recycling must not be exempted from the regulations that apply to other shipments of hazardous waste.
- Require regular inspection of hazardous waste recycling facilities.
- Establish enforceable criteria for legitimate recycling. EPA must prohibit "sham recycling" (illegal disposal of hazardous waste in the guise of recycling) by requiring hazardous waste recyclers to submit documentation that their recycling activities are legitimate.
We can't allow these disproportionate effects on communities of color and low-income communities to continue. Take action today and tell EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to enact a solid waste safeguard that protects all Americans.