Industrial Wastes:

An Unexplored Source of Valuable Minerals

EMD-80-45: Published: May 15, 1980. Publicly Released: May 15, 1980.

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Industrial wastes often contain valuable metals, and are often disposed of in ways that preclude the future recovery of mineral values. While Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 to improve the recovery of usable materials from waste, the executive branch has done little to enhance mineral recovery, especially from industrial wastes. GAO reviewed this situation to determine: (1) the extent to which mineral values are recovered from industrial wastestreams; (2) the potential for greater recovery; (3) impediments to further recovery; and (4) actions to be taken by the Federal Government to accelerate and increase mineral recovery.

Identification, evaluation, and promotion of resource recovery programs for all types of waste are required by the Act. However, little has taken place for industrial wastes for the following reasons: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has received limited funding under the Act, and the appropriated funds have been largely directed toward hazardous waste regulation; information is lacking on the nature, location, and recoverable contents of industrial wastestreams; the Department of Commerce, which has critical responsibilities under the Act, has been unable to obtain funding; the interagency Resource Conservation Committee, established by the Act to evaluate resource recovery strategies, was not effective; agencies involved have conducted little research on recovering minerals from industrial wastes. Recently, EPA has initiated plans for a new interagency committee to coordinate resource recovery objectives. Because EPA is primarily a regulatory agency with its experience lying in environmental protection, GAO believed that EPA should remain the lead agency for resource recovery. However, GAO attributed the lack of progress toward the resource recovery objectives to assigning EPA responsibilities that could be more appropriately pursued elsewhere.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Administrator of EPA has not established a new interagency committee over the past 3.5 years.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should continue to vigorously pursue the establishment of the new interagency committee to coordinate executive branch actions toward legislated resource recovery objectives.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should work with the Department of Justice to develop guidelines to industry, for the establishment of joint resource recovery ventures that will be compatible with the Department of Justice antitrust concerns.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Bureau of Mines has redirected its research to strategic and critical mineral development. Resource recovery is now the responsibility of EPA and the Department of Energy.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should explore ways to enhance its industrial waste recovery research. Specifically, the Bureau of Mines should work closely with the Department of Commerce and EPA to support resource-recovery opportunities that require technical research. The Bureau of Mines also needs to do more to assure the potential application of specific projects by demonstrating to industry through pilot plants or other means, the economic worth of developed technologies.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior


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