When is hazardous waste not hazardous?

A proposed change in waste labeling has environmentalists scratching their heads

Glenn Miller, a professor of environmental science, is concerned about a change in law to re-categorize some hazardous waste. <p></p>

Glenn Miller, a professor of environmental science, is concerned about a change in law to re-categorize some hazardous waste.

Photo By David Robert

There will be a meeting Feb. 26 at 9:30 a.m. at the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s Conference Room A, 1100 Valley Road, to discuss the proposed changes to the hazardous waste law.

Glenn Miller is director of the Environmental Science and Health Graduate program at the University of Nevada, Reno. He’s of average height and wears thick glasses over his smallish eyes. In his office, the shelves ooze environmental policy books, and there’s an old poster above the desk which allows environmentalist John Muir to watch over the goings on.

When he first heard of proposed change to state waste policy, Miller was nonchalant, but as he rummaged his computer for government documents about the proposal, he grew increasingly alarmed.

The changes proposed by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection would make it easier to ship some toxic wastes into Nevada. It would almost certainly boost the amounts of toxic wastes on Nevada highways. Most specifically, the regulation change would declassify some toxic wastes, while making it more difficult for watchdogs to keep an eye on waste importation.

“Quite honestly, I was surprised by what appeared to be proposed changes that not only would allow substantially increased potentially hazardous waste being shipped to Nevada, but that the driving force for management of these wastes would not be based on the best management practices,” Miller wrote in an e-mail to the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

According to current Nevada law, waste that is classified as hazardous in its state of origin is considered hazardous in Nevada. If the proposal passes, certain wastes considered hazardous in their state of origin—like California, which has stricter standards than Nevada or the federal government—won’t officially be considered hazardous once they cross the Nevada border. Also, the fee for storage of remediation waste would drop from $17.64 per ton to $3 per ton—the non-hazardous waste fee.

According to several sources, the law change was written to benefit the US Ecology Beatty RCRA/TSCA Treatment, Storage and Disposal Facility, 115 miles northwest of Las Vegas. US Ecology is the only hazardous waste storage facility in the state of Nevada, and there are only 20 facilities of this kind in the United States. It accepts waste from places like Oregon, Idaho, Washington and California, which may mean more waste will have to travel through Reno.

“It appears that the proposed regulatory changes are being pushed by US Ecology because they reduce competitive pressure to send these wastes somewhere else than Beatty,” Miller said.

“This potentially includes a very large amount of toxic materials, and it provides a very large incentive to bring in waste California designates as hazardous. Is this really what we want to do to generate money for Nevada? No, probably not,” he said.

Miller is curious as to the support of the Nevada DEP and why such a change would be proposed. His curiosity may be satisfied at the public meeting to discuss the proposal on Feb. 26 at the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s Conference Room.

Some folks have already expressed support. The Bureau of Waste Management has received letters of support from people like Sens. Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, and Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, and Assemblyman Rod Sherer, R-Pahrump, and Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Association.

If this waste is still to be stored at a hazardous facility and treated as hazardous waste, then why the policy change? For one, non-hazardous waste requires less paperwork and allows less public oversight.

According to the EPA’s website, every transporter of hazardous materials is required by federal law to have a Uniform Hazardous Waste Manifest. The manifest is a descriptive document containing information of exactly what is being transported. The only information the transporter would need for waste classified as non-hazardous would be where the waste came from, its classification and the amount.

Bob Marchand, facility manager at the Beatty facility said the manifest would still accompany the shipment of the materials, but under the newly proposed law, it would not be necessary.

“Potentially, there will no longer be a manifest, but realistically, the manifest will follow the waste from California to Nevada,” Marchand said.

So why all this play on words? When all is said, or unsaid in this case, the change is strictly for economic purposes.

“It’s to make the facility more competitive,” Marchand said.

The Beatty plant already seems pretty competitive. In fact, it increased its hazardous waste disposal by 35 percent from 75,000 tons in 2002 to 116,000 in 2003. But management claims that’s still not enough for the facility to remain viable. Some state officials agree.

“The reason is to provide some [fee] release for the one hazardous waste facility in Nevada,” Jim Trent, program developer for the Bureau of Waste Management, said. “It is prudent for us to keep that site open.”

The chief competition to the plant comes from neighboring states which currently charge less than the Beatty plant does. If there is not an in-state place to dispose of hazardous waste, then Nevada businesses will have to send the waste out of state, with the large resultant transportation costs.

Isn’t it going to require a lot more waste to come in just to break even at $3 per ton?

“NDEP acknowledges that the proposed change may likely increase the amounts of certain wastes shipped to Nevada,” Trent said.