Brent Bradford, director of the Bureau of Solid and Hazardous Waste, says the Legislature failed to tackle a key question about proposed hazardous waste incinerators: whether they should be encouraged to accept a lot of waste from out of state.

Incinerator proposals are discussed often in the routine meetings of the Utah Solid and Hazardous Waste Committee. In the meeting Tuesday, updates were provided on incinerator permits and siting criteria.Bureau staff members are studying public comments on proposed new regulations on how to control the siting of incinerators. They hope to have proposed regulations ready by the committee meeting on Sept. 21, when they may be approved for public hearing.

The state has no right to ban hazardous waste incinerators from Utah, Bradford said. But it can see that incinerators meet health and safety requirements.

Decisions such as siting and mitigating impacts of the plant's operations can then be handled on the local level.

Questions such as possible groundwater or air contamination must be answered to the satisfaction of the Environmental Protection Agency and the state, which jointly operate a permit system. Soon, Utah officials may take over primary responsibility for the permits.

So when will the first incinerators be built? "Assuming that all of the permits are issued, assuming they get through the local zoning questions . . . I think the best shot's going to be in about three years," Bradford said.

He emphasized that this is only a guess.

But it seems inevitable that an incinerator will be built somewhere in Utah.

Recent amendments to the national Superfund Act require that each state certify it has the ability to handle hazardous waste disposal for the next 20 years. That ability to handle waste can't be limited to landfills, because Congress also required that by 1991, landfills no longer be used for dangerous organic compounds.

That leaves only one option for most states: incinerators.

"There's really a need for incinerator capability in this country," Bradford said. "The question then gets down to where are they going to go, and is it appropriate to do it in Utah?"

Another question that may prove to be a key to the entire issue is this: how much money should Utah charge hazardous-waste disposers? Recently, the Legislature set this tax at $6 per ton for in-state waste, $9 for out-of-state companies.

Bradford said that in some nearby states the fee is $20 or $22 per ton, but some areas charge even less than Utah.

"We have been approached by some legislators with concern about the fee, and the concern about Utah having other states' waste come," he said.

"Should we encourage it or discourage it? A lot can be done with a fee; a fee makes a difference."

A state task force recommended that the Legislature examine the question of using a fee as a tool to control the amount of waste coming in from other areas.

But Bradford said the past session of the Legislature never grappled with that aspect of the issue, focusing more on such questions as how much of a fee would be needed to adequately oversee the incinerator program.

As far as the issue of whether the state should encourage incinerators to accept hazardous waste from beyond Utah's borders, "We never really got down to a hard decision."