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  Environmental Policy Issues

Waste Disposal Issues
(Released September 1999)

 

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Solid waste management has been a major public concern over much of the last decade, as local governments and private firms throughout the nation have upgraded waste management programs and facilities and dealt with myriad public pressures over waste issues.

Three persistent solid waste issues that have been inherited by the 106th Congress are illustrated in the Congressional Research Service (CRS) Issue Brief for Congress, Solid Waste Issues in the 106th Congress (May 28, 1999). This report examines interstate shipment of waste, the management of what are called "remediation wastes" from old hazardous waste sites, and implementation of the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Waste.

The interstate shipment of solid waste has recently regained media attention as local governments fight for the right to protect their environment against the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. The CRS Issue Brief, Interstate Waste Transport: Legislative Issues (June 16, 1999) discusses ten issues raised by proposed legislation to allow controls on interstate commerce in solid waste.

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. CRS Issue Brief, Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal (June 7, 1999) describes the obstacles put forth in dealing with this issue.

© Copyright 1999, All Rights Reserved, CSA

 

CRS Reports

Solid Waste Issues in the 106th Congress

Summary

The 106th Congress inherited three solid waste issues from the 105th and earlier Congresses: interstate shipment of waste, the management of what are called "remediation wastes" from old hazardous waste sites, and implementation of the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Waste. The 105th Congress adjourned without passing bills on these issues, although each was discussed.

The first set of issues, whether state and local governments should be given authority to restrict the growing volume of out-of-state solid waste (the "interstate waste" issue) has been on the congressional agenda for many years. A related issue, whether state or local jurisdictions may designate where locally generated waste must be disposed ("flow control") has more recently joined it. The Constitution's interstate commerce clause generally prohibits both actions absent congressional authorization. Since the 101st Congress, both the House and Senate have passed legislation providing some such authority, but lack of agreement on specific provisions has prevented enactment. Continued growth in interstate waste shipments, the financial troubles faced by local governments in the absence of flow control, and the impending closure of New York City's Fresh Kills landfill (the world's largest) may combine to spur congressional interest this year.

A second solid waste issue that may receive attention is a proposal to exempt from hazardous waste management requirements certain low-risk wastes generated by remediation of old waste sites. Doing so would reduce the cost and increase the speed of site cleanups, without necessarily endangering the environment. There is general support for such legislation from industry, environmental groups, states, the Administration, and several key Senators, but reaching agreement on the specifics of draft legislation has proven difficult. Issues include the definition of remediation waste, the treatment standards to be applied to it, whether some kind of modified permit would be required, the degree of public participation to be required in developing remedial action plans, and the respective roles of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state environmental agencies.

A third issue that may arise in the 106th Congress concerns implementation of the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Waste. More than 120 countries have ratified this convention, which is intended to protect countries from receiving unwanted shipments of waste. The United States played a major role in the negotiation of the convention a decade ago, but has not passed legislation to implement it. Both the Administration and the Chairman of the House Commerce Committee have expressed interest in moving such legislation in the 106th Congress.

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Interstate Waste Transport: Legislative Issues

Summary

This report discusses ten issues raised by proposed legislation to allow controls on interstate commerce in solid waste. Such legislation has been considered in every Congress since 1990. Renewed interest has been generated since late 1998 by developments in New York City, which plans to close its only remaining landfill in 2001, and by legislative actions in states to which New York's waste may be shipped as local disposal is phased out. Issues discussed in the report include whether to presumptively ban new waste shipments, whether to grant authority to states or to local governments, what types of facilities and what types of waste to include in a bill's authority, grandfather provisions, freeze and ratchet authority, fees on out-of-state waste, indirect measures controlling waste imports, whether to include flow control authority, and the desirability of preconditions versus an unconditional grant of authority. This report will be updated as developments warrant. For information on current interstate waste legislation, the reader is referred to CRS Issue Brief IB10002.

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Civilian Nuclear Waste Disposal

Summary

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 the far-less-radioactive uranium mill tailings that result 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 completed a "viability assessment" of the Yucca Mountain site in December 1998, and plans to apply for an NRC license in 2002 to build the repository. FY1999 funding for the program is $358 million, and $409 million is requested for FY2000.

Legislation has been introduced in the 106th Congress (H.R. 45, S. 608) to establish an interim waste storage facility near Yucca Mountain. The House Commerce Committee approved H.R. 45 on April 21, 1999, by a vote of 40-6 (H.Rept. 106-155, Part 1). President Clinton has threatened a veto, 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 compacts that, upon approval by Congress, were allowed to restrict the import of low-level waste from states outside those compacts beginning in 1993.

Ten such compacts have been approved by Congress, including a recently approved compact among Texas, Maine, and Vermont. 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 has blocked action on the issue.

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