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Earth Day 2000 Special Topic (I)Hazardous Waste Enforcement in the United States

Susan E. Bromm
Deputy Director
Office of Site Remediation Enforcement
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency



In 1976 Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) which established four distinct but interrelated programs for the proper management of hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste. Even though only 5% of the waste regulated under RCRA is hazardous waste, when people talk about RCRA, this is generally what they are referring to. The regulatory framework established under RCRA Subtitle C establishes a very complex system for controlling hazardous waste from the time it is generated until its ultimate disposal, in effect, from "cradle to grave." And fundamental to the success and integrity of this management system is its strong and comprehensive enforcement scheme, which ensures that the regulatory and statutory provisions of RCRA are met.


This "cradle to grave" management system sets forth statutory and regulatory requirements for identification of hazardous waste, for the generators and transporters of hazardous waste, and finally for the owners and operators of facilities that treat, store or dispose of hazardous waste. The key to the system is the Uniform Hazardous Waste Manifest, which tracks the movement of the waste from the point of generation to the point of ultimate treatment, storage, or disposal.

The effective implementation of the RCRA program depends on whether the people and companies regulated under RCRA comply with its various requirements. Thus the goals of the enforcement program are to ensure that the regulatory and statutory provisions of RCRA are met, and to compel necessary actions to correct violations. There are three essential aspects of the enforcement program: compliance monitoring, which includes inspections and information gathering, enforcement actions, and compliance incentives and assistance.

There are a broad range of enforcement options available to EPA or an authorized State. The comprehensive and flexible enforcement scheme provides for civil administrative actions, civil judicial actions, and criminal actions. Significant penalties are an important component of our civil sanctions. A formal administrative order can contain a penalty of up to $27,500 per day for each day of noncompliance and can suspend or revoke the facility's permit or interim status. Criminal actions are usually reserved for only the most serious violations and can result in the imposition of fines or imprisonment. The penalties range from a fine of up to $50,000 per day or a prison sentence of up to five years, to a total fine up to $1 million and up to 15 years in prison.

As with most EPA media programs, the RCRA program is delegated to the States and they are our partners both in the management and enforcement of the hazardous waste program. The Department of Justice is also involved in pursuing judicial actions, both civil and criminal.


The United States supports a strong national enforcement program to deter illegal transboundary shipments of hazardous waste and other dangerous substances. In recent years, EPA's enforcement and compliance assurance effort have become more focused on the national borders and toward improving the capacity to track transboundary waste, to detect violations of U.S. or international law, and to identify and pursue violators who export waste in order to avoid the cost of disposing or reusing it in an environmentally sound manner. In order to detect illegal shipments of hazardous waste, the program is based upon an effective notification and tracking system and an enforcement system that includes inspections and civil and criminal enforcement sanctions and penalties. The U.S. model of detection and cessation of illegal waste traffic is based on six elements: an effective statutory and regulatory program; domestic interagency cooperation; international cooperation and outreach; compliance assistance; compliance monitoring and effective enforcement response.


Cleaning up hazardous waste is done under several statutes. Past and present activities at RCRA facilities may have resulted in releases of hazardous waste and hazardous constituents into soil, ground water, surface water and air. RCRA generally mandates that EPA require the investigation and cleanup, or remediation, of these hazardous releases at RCRA facilities. This program is known as corrective action. In 1996 EPA estimated that approximately 5,000 RCRA facility are potentially subject to RCRA corrective action. EPA enforces the corrective action program primarily through statutory authorities established by the 1984 amendments to RCRA. These authorities allow the Agency to address any releases of hazardous waste or hazardous constituents to all environmental media at both permitted and nonpermitted facilities.

Another part of RCRA regulates Underground Storage Tanks. These regulations apply only to USTs storing either petroleum or hazardous substances. Releases of regulated substances into the environment are generally attributed to corrosion, faulty installation, and spills and overfills. RCRA provides authority for federal and state personnel to collect information from tank owners and operators, to inspect and sample tanks, to respond to violations of tank standards through civil or administrative actions, and to seek injunctive relief when human health or the environment are endangered.

Although RCRA created a framework for the proper management of hazardous and non-hazardous waste, it did not address the problems of hazardous waste found at inactive or abandoned sites or those resulting from spills that require emergency response. In 1980 Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) to address these problems. CERCLA is a very powerful statute. It created a response program for hazardous substances, pollutants, and contaminants and set up a liability scheme that authorizes the Federal government to hold identified categories of parties liable for the cost or performance of cleanup. Congress also created a revolving trust fund (the Hazardous Substance Superfund) from which the President could draw funds to respond to actual and threatened releases. There are three basic options for cleaning up a site: EPA can clean up the site using Superfund money, and later recover the costs from potentially responsible parties (PRPs); EPA can order, or ask a court to order, a PRP to clean up the site; EPA can enter into settlement agreements with PRPs requiring the PRP to clean up the site or pay for the cleanup. Using its enforcement authority to assure that viable private parties that created the contamination are held responsible for cleaning them up, PRPs currently perform or pay for approximately 70% of long-term cleanups.