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EPA at 50: Managing Waste Across the Nation and the Heartland

(Lenexa, Kan., July 21, 2020) – To celebrate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) 50th anniversary, the Agency is highlighting the progress made on promoting responsible waste management, preventing contamination from hazardous waste, and cleaning up contamination from underground storage tanks.

The nation looked much different 50 years ago. Flammable and toxic chemicals were placed in unlined lagoons and released into groundwater and waterways; hazardous wastes were haphazardly stockpiled in drums and discarded in valleys; midnight dumping rendered waterways lifeless; housing developments were placed on uncontrolled dump sites; trash was burned in the open, contaminating water, land and air; and thousands of underground storage tanks were susceptible to leakage.

“Since EPA was founded 50 years ago, we have made great strides in protecting human health and the environment from the dangers of mismanagement of solid and hazardous wastes,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “These safeguards have been essential to economic growth and job creation, and it is vital that we continue to adapt and change with the times to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”

In EPA Region 7’s four states, the region’s Land, Chemical and Redevelopment Division (LCRD) is responsible for waste management programs, including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Underground Storage Tanks (UST), and Leaking UST programs.

“The regional office works with our state environmental agencies and industry partners in waste management planning and operations,” said EPA Region 7 Administrator Jim Gulliford. “This partnership also includes ensuring our Underground Storage Tanks program operates in such a way that it reduces or eliminates risk to the people of the region by preventing leaks and by providing complete and timely remediation where leaks do occur.”

The waste management and tank programs are a collaborative process that relies heavily on state-delegated programs and partnerships with businesses and industries throughout Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. The work is accomplished through interaction with states, tribes, local governments, nonprofit organizations, the regulated community, and the public. The regional staff provides technical assistance for program management and local community emergency response organizations promoting sustainable environmental results.

On Oct. 21, 1976, President Ford signed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) into law, which empowered EPA, in close partnership with the states, tribes and territories, to set standards for responsible solid waste management and to establish “cradle-to-grave” safeguards for hazardous wastes from generation, transportation, treatment, storage and disposal. RCRA was amended in 1984 to create the federal Underground Storage Tanks (UST) program and require cleanups at hazardous waste facilities. The program not only works with state and tribal partners to clean up tank leaks when they occur, but also sets tank design standards, requirements for leak detection and spill and overfill controls, and an inspection program to reduce the frequency of leaks occurring.

The fundamental elements of these programs established in those early years have been very successful at protecting the American public from hazardous waste contamination and leaking underground storage tanks. Open dumping, unlined landfills, and leaking underground tanks have been replaced by well-engineered sanitary landfills for municipal and industrial waste, and design, installation and inspection standards for underground storage tanks.

EPA established these safeguards for the generation and transportation of hazardous waste, including requirements for the disposal or recycling of waste and cleanup standards when contamination does occur. Today, the RCRA Waste Management program manages over 2.5 billion tons of solid, industrial and hazardous waste resulting from the manufacturing and use of goods throughout the economy, and oversees almost 4,000 cleanups across the country each year. In addition, approximately 546,000 underground storage tanks nationwide store petroleum or hazardous substances and are managed to safeguard against the contamination of groundwater, which serves as the source of drinking water for nearly half of all Americans.

“As our economy and business practices have evolved, EPA has continued to adapt, innovate and fine-tune its solid and hazardous waste regulations,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management Peter Wright. “We are committed to working with our state, tribal and territorial partners, in close consultation with communities and the regulated community, to fulfill our important mission.”

“The Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials (ASTSWMO) values our partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency,” said ASTSWMO Executive Director Dania Rodriguez. “As co-regulators, with our federal partners, we strive to protect and improve public health and the environment and look forward to continuing and strengthening our partnership the next 50 years and beyond.”

Recent national waste management and underground storage tanks accomplishments include:

Waste Management

EPA recently added aerosol cans to the Universal Waste program, which streamlines the management of commonly generated wastes such as batteries and fluorescent lighting. Aerosol cans account for nearly 40% of retail items that are managed as hazardous waste at large retail facilities. The rule promotes recycling while saving $5.3 million annually in regulatory costs. This is part of a wider retail strategy to make hazardous waste regulations more adaptable to a retail setting.

Last year, EPA finalized cost-saving, streamlined standards for handling hazardous waste pharmaceuticals to better fit the operations of the health care sector, while maintaining protections of human health and the environment. The rule protects drinking water by prohibiting sewering of these wastes, while generating up to $15 million a year in cost savings.

EPA launched a national system for tracking hazardous waste shipments electronically on June 30, 2018. The e-Manifest system improves access to higher quality and more timely hazardous waste shipment data, and will save state and industry users more than $50 million annually, once electronic manifests are widely adopted.

In 2018, EPA finalized regulatory changes for the safe management of recalled airbags, which helped facilitate the urgent removal of defective Takata airbag inflators and produced an estimated cost savings of $1.7 million to 13 million annually.

EPA finalized the first-ever coal ash disposal standards in 2015 while continuing to promote their beneficial use. In 2016, Congress provided EPA and the states authority to operate coal ash permit programs and EPA is updating the regulations accordingly. EPA continues to update the regulations based on stakeholder feedback and on-the-ground experience.

Underground Storage Tanks

Since the inception of the UST program in 1984, EPA and states have cleaned up more than 493,000 releases from USTs nationwide, with 3,556 cleanups completed in the first half of fiscal year 2020.

EPA has worked with states and tribal partners to decrease the numbers of annual UST releases nationwide from between 25,000 and 66,000 per year in the 1990s to a low of 5,375 in 2019.

From 2008 to 2019, states, EPA, and credentialed tribal inspectors conducted over 1.1 million inspections at federally regulated UST facilities.

For more information, see a Timeline of Milestones in RCRA History.

Learn more about EPA’s UST program.

EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management provides policy, guidance and direction for the Agency’s emergency response and waste programs.