Hazardous Waste Disposal Methods:

Major Problems With Their Use

CED-81-21: Published: Nov 19, 1980. Publicly Released: Nov 19, 1980.

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Hugh J. Wessinger
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GAO was asked to study alternative methods of disposal and cleanup of hazardous wastes. Specifically, the study looked into the: (1) environmental and cost effectiveness of hazardous waste disposal on the land, deep well injection, and high temperature incineration and the need for additional research and development in these areas; (2) establishment of facilities on a regional or areawide basis as opposed to an individual company's basis; and (3) hazardous waste regulations recently promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Disposal on the land is the predominantly used hazardous waste disposal method. Yet it presents the greatest potential risk for surface and ground water contamination and liability for damages. For the long-term interests of the country, the on-the-land disposal method needs to be drastically reduced. There was little evidence of any environmental problem resulting from the deep well disposal of hazardous wastes. However, the method should be applied only in geologically selective areas below aquifers where the wastes cannot migrate and pollute surface or ground water and reclaimable minerals. Burning of hazardous wastes in incinerators, at temperatures generally over 1,000 degrees centigrade with a specific retention period in the incinerator, may be one solution to the hazardous waste disposal problem. However, the process has had only limited application because few facilities have been built and the cost is estimated at about three times the cost of deep well injection. For land disposal, deep well injection, and high temperature incineration, research on how to develop facilities has been essentially completed. However, additional research on specific substances and site locations will continue to be needed for the long term. Disposal facilities providing services on a regional basis offer economic and environmental advantages. To date, the national problem of what to do about closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites has not been fully confronted. More time will be needed before the hazardous waste regulations are fully promulgated and implemented.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The recommendations are no longer valid in most of the cases. Funding has been provided to develop a comprehensive national inventory resulting from additional work on CED-82-91, dated June 2, 1982.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should (1) set priorities through regulation of the preferred sequence by which the various disposal methods should be applied to encourage the States and industry to work toward a reduction in the use of on-the-land disposal as the predominant disposal method; (2) identify additional areas of the country suitable for the deep well disposal of hazardous wastes (EPA designated Class I wells) and, where appropriate, encourage industry to use deep well disposal as a hazardous waste disposal alternative; (3) encourage the development of high temperature burning facilities, in conjunction with the States and selected industries, in various areas of the country to better show their long-term cost advantages and environmental viability; (4) prescribe in regulations that regional or areawide disposal facilities be developed in addition to individual company disposal operations; and (5) initiate, in conjunction with the State and local governments, on a county-by-county basis, a comprehensive national inventory of closed and abandoned dump sites of the type recently completed by the State of New York. The inventory would be used to assess the total economic and environmental costs of past hazardous waste disposal.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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