Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

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Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), an amendment to the Solid Waste Disposal Act, was enacted in 1976 to address a problem of enormous magnitudehow to safely dispose of the huge volumes of municipal and industrial solid waste generated nationwide. It is a problem with roots that go back well before 1976.

There was a time when the amount of waste produced in the United States was small and its impact on the environment relatively minor. (A river could purify itself every 10 miles [16 km].) However, with the industrial revolution in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the country began to grow with unprecedented speed. New products were developed and consumers were offered an ever-expanding array of material goods.

This growth continued through the early twentieth century and took off after World War II when the nation's industrial base, strengthened by the war, turned its energies toward domestic production. The results of this growth were not all positive. With more goods came more waste, both hazardous and nonhazardous. In the late 1940s, the United States was generating roughly 500,000 metric tons of hazardous waste a year. In 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 275 million tons of hazardous waste were generated nationwide.

Waste management was slow in coming. Much of the waste produced made its way into the environment where it began to pose a serious threat to ecological systems and public health. In the mid-1970s, it became clear, to both Congress and the nation alike, that action had to be taken to ensure that solid wastes were managed properly. This realization began the process that resulted in the passage of RCRA. The goals set by RCRA were: to protect human health and the environment; to reduce waste and conserve energy and natural resources ; to reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous waste as expeditiously as possible.

To achieve these goals, four distinct yet interrelated programs exist under RCRA. The first program, under Subtitle D, encourages states to develop comprehensive plans to manage primarily nonhazardous solid waste, e.g., household waste . The second program, under Subtitle C, establishes a system for controlling hazardous waste from the time it is generated until its ultimate disposalor from "cradle-to-grave." The third program, under Subtitle I, regulates certain underground storage tanks. It establishes performance standards for new tanks and requires leak detection, prevention and corrective action at underground tank sites. The newest program to be established is the medical waste program under Subtitle J. It establishes a demonstration program to track medical waste from generation to disposal.

Although RCRA created a framework for the proper management of hazardous and nonhazardous solid waste, it did not address the problems of hazardous waste encountered at inactive or abandoned sites or those resulting from spills that require emergency response. These problems are addressed by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly called Superfund.

Today RCRA refers to the overall program resulting from the Solid Waste Disposal Act. The Solid Waste Disposal Act was enacted in 1965 for the primary purpose of improving solid waste disposal methods. It was amended in 1970 by the Resource Recovery Act and again in 1976 by RCRA. The changes embodied in RCRA remodeled our nation's solid waste management system and added provisions pertaining to hazardous waste management.

The Act continues to evolve as Congress amends it to reflect changing needs. It has been amended several times since 1976, most significantly on November 8, 1984. The 1984 amendments, called the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA), expanded the scope and requirements of RCRA. Provisions resulting from the 1984 amendments are significant, since they tend to deal with the waste problems resulting from more complex technology.

The Act is a law that describes the kind of waste management program that Congress wants to establish. This description is in very broad termsdirecting the EPA to develop and promulgate criteria for identifying the characteristics of hazardous waste. The Act also provides the Administrator of the EPA (or designated representative) with the authority necessary to carry out the intent of the Actthe authority to conduct inspections.

The Act includes a Congressional mandate for EPA to develop a comprehensive set of regulations. Regulations are legal mechanisms that define how a statute's broad policy directives are to be implemented. RCRA regulations have been developed by the EPA, covering a range of topics from guidelines for state solid waste plans to a framework for the hazardous waste permit program.

RCRA regulations are published according to an established process. When a regulation is proposed it is published in the Federal Register. It is usually first published as a proposed regulation, allowing the public to comment on it for a period of timenormally 30 to 60 days. Included with the proposed regulation is a discussion of the Agency's rationale for the regulatory approach and an explanation, or preamble, of the technical basis for the proposed regulation. Following the comment period, EPA evaluates public comments. In addressing the comments, the EPA usually revises the proposed regulation. The final regulation is published in the Federal Register ("promulgated"). Regulations are compiled annually and bound in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) according to a highly structured format. The codified RCRA regulations can be found in Title 40 of the CFLRL, Parts 240-280; regulations are often cited as 40 CAR.

Although the relationship between an Act and its regulations is the norm, the relationship between HSWA and its regulations differs. HSWA is unusual in that Congress placed explicit requirements in the statute in addition to instructing the EPA in general language to develop regulations. Many of these requirements are so specific that the EPA incorporated them directly into the regulations. HSWA is all the more significant because of the ambitious schedules that Congress established to implement the Act's provisions. Another unique aspect of HSWA is that it establishes "hammer" provisionsstatutory requirements that go into effect automatically as regulations if EPA fails to issue these regulations by certain dates. EPA further clarifies its regulations through guidance documents and policy.

The EPA issues guidance documents primarily to elaborate and provide direction for implementing the regula tionsessentially they explain how to do something. For example, the regulations in 40 CAR Part 270 detail what is required in a permit application for a hazardous management facility. The guidance for this part gives instructions on how to evaluate a permit application to see if everything is included. Guidance documents also provide the Agency's interpretations of the Act.

Policy statements, however, specify operating procedures that should be followed. They are a mechanism used by EPA program offices to outline the manner in which pieces of the RCRA program are to be carried out. In most cases, policy statements are addressed to staff working on implementation. Many guidance and policy documents have been developed to aid in implementing the RCRA Program. To find out what documents are available, the Office of Solid Waste's Directives System lists all RCRA-related policy guidance and memoranda and identifies where they can be obtained.

RCRA works as follows: Subtitle D of the Act encourages States to develop and implement solid waste management plans. These plans are intended to promote recycling of solid wastes and require closing or upgrading of all environmentally unsound dumps. Due to increasing volumes, solid waste management has become a key issue facing many localities and states. Recognizing this, Congress directed the EPA in HSWA to take an active role with the states in solving the difficult problem of solid waste management. The EPA has been in the process of revising the standards that apply to municipal solid waste landfills. Current with the revision of these standards, the EPA formed a task force to analyze solid waste source reduction and recycling options. The revised solid waste standards, together with the task force findings, form the basis for the EPA's development of strategies to better regulate municipal solid waste management.

Subtitle C establishes a program to manage hazardous wastes from "cradle-to-grave." The objective of the C program is to ensure that hazardous waste is handled in a manner that protects human health and the environment. To this end, there are Subtitle C regulations regarding the generation, transportation and treatment, storage, or disposal of hazardous wastes. In practical terms, this means regulating a large number of hazardous waste handlers. As of June, 1989, the EPA had on record more than 7,000 treatment, storage and disposal facilities; 17,000 transporters; and about 180,000 large and small quantity generators. By February, 1992, that number had increased substantially (43,000 treatment, storage, and disposal facilities; 19,700 transporters; 238,000 large and small quantity generators).

The Subtitle C program has resulted in perhaps the most comprehensive regulations the EPA has ever developed. They first identify those solid wastes that are "hazard ous" and then establish various administrative requirements for the three categories of hazardous waste handlers: generators, transporters and owners or operators of treatment, storage and disposal facilities (TSDFs). In addition, Subtitle C regulations set technical standards for the design and safe operation of TSDFs. These standards are designed to minimize the release of hazardous waste into the environment. Furthermore, the regulations for TSDFs serve as the basis for developing and using the permits required for each facility. Issuing permits is essential to making the Subtitle C regulatory program work, since it is through the permitting process that the EPA or a State actually applies the technical standards to facilities.

Subtitle I regulates petroleum products and hazardous substances (as defined under Superfund) stored in underground tanks. The objective of Subtitle I is to prevent leakage to groundwater from tanks and to clean up past releases. Under Subtitle I, the EPA developed performance standards for new tanks and regulations for leak detection, prevention, closure, financial responsibility, and corrective action at all underground tank sites. This program may be delegated to states.

Subtitle J was added by Congress when, in the summer of 1988, medical wastes washed up on Atlantic beaches, thus highlighting the inadequacy of medical waste management practices. Subtitle J instructed the EPA to develop a two-year demonstration program to track medical waste from generation to disposal in demonstration States. The demonstration program was completed in 1991 and Congress has yet to decide upon the merits of national medical waste regulation. At this point no Federal regulatory authority is administering regulations, but individual states are; some are setting up very stringent regulations on storage, packaging, transportation, and disposal.

Congress and the President set overall national direction for RCRA programs. The EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response translates this direction into operating programs by developing regulations, guidelines and policy. the EPA then implements RCRA programs or delegates implementation to the states, providing them with technical and financial assistance.

Waste minimization or reduction is a major EPA goal. It is defined as any source reduction or recycling activity that results in either reduction of total volume of hazardous waste or reduction of toxicity of hazardous waste, or both, as long as that reduction is consistent with the general goal of minimizing present and future threats to human health and the environment.

See also Waste reduction

[Liane Clorfene Casten ]



Hazardous Waste Management Compliance Handbook. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.

RCRA Deskbook. Washington, DC: Environmental Law Institute, 1991.


U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. RCRA Orientation Manual. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990.

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Resource Conservation and Recovery Act