The LA Times had an interesting story today in the science section today. Apparently the EPA, under the direction of Bush, is exempting an estimated 118,500 tons of hazardous waste annually and allowing industry to burn the waste as fuel so it doesn’t count as hazardous waste. From the article:
Susan Bodine, the EPA’s assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said in a statement that the rule eliminated unnecessary regulation and promoted “energy recovery” without sacrificing human health or the environment.
But Ben Dunham, associate legislative counsel for the nonprofit advocacy group Earthjustice, said that “everything about this rule-making was flawed,” including “the logic that says, ‘If you can burn it, it’s not a hazardous waste.’ ”
That’s pretty much the extant of it in this report. Sounds like no big deal, right? The waste gets burned, it’s gone, and nobody gets hurt, right? That is one of the problems with science reporting in mainstream media. There are many unanswered questions here. What sort of waste will get burned? What will be the residue left after burning? It also stands to reason that some of the byproducts of burning is going to be emissions into the air. What sort of emissions?
Of course it turns out one can get a little more information about this online. The Earth Justice site also has a little story about this here. From this article:
“Everything about this rulemaking was flawed,” said Ben Dunham, Associate Legislative Counsel for Earthjustice. “From the backroom industry request for the rollback, to the process that hid the identities of the facilities from affected communities and ignored data showing increased toxic emissions, to the logic that says ‘if you can burn it, it’s not a hazardous waste.'”
The agency justified the new rule by claiming that emissions from burning waste are not “likely” to differ from emissions from burning fossil fuels. But EPA offered no data to support that claim in their proposed rule, and admitted that some emissions could be higher.
“Many of these wastes are already being burned for fuel by licensed, trained, and closely regulated professionals in incinerators designed to eliminate toxic emissions,” Dunham added. “This rule allows hazardous waste generators — including many with terrible environmental records — to simply throw their hazardous waste in the company boiler.”
Admittedly, a group called Earth Justice might be considered somewhat biased, but the statements made seem entirely reasonable. The EPA has even admitted that some emissions may be higher than fossil fuels. Looking at the pdf link has a little more information. Out of 173 tests, 32 showed more toxic emissions than the worst fossil fuel boiler, with emissions including benzene (a known carcinogen) and toluene.
Now I do happen to think this is a very bad idea, but just another in a string of very bad ideas coming out of the Bush administration. But whether or not you agree with that, I think it is reasonable to ask why we are not seeing more media coverage of something like this. Plus the coverage we have is very sparse and lacking any depth. This just got slid way under the disproportionate coverage of the Illinois governor, cabinet selections, etc. (yes, those things are important also, but don’t need to be every story). This deserves wider public discourse and is just one example of why we need to work at more effective communication and public scientific literacy.