As a trainload of contaminated soil headed for Utah Tuesday, Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, told a House panel that Western states need more power to ensure they do not become the nation's "cesspool and repository."
"We are headed toward a future where, once again, the nation will look upon the West as the `national sacrifice zone,' " Owens told the House Energy Subcommittee on Transportation and Hazardous Materials.Owens has introduced a bill that would allow states to ban delivery of wastes from outside states for storage or treatment within their boundaries. It would also allow them to charge fees that are at least as much as the maximum disposal fee charged within the state generating the waste.
Owens said that would encourage each state to take care of its own waste and not to dump it in the West. He hopes it will become part of the scheduled reauthorization of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Owens' comments were especially timely Tuesday because a train with 2,000 tons of contaminated soil - which had been shunned by several states in the East - was headed for U.S. Pollution Control's Grassy Mountain facility in Tooele County.
The soil was contaminated by acrylic acid - a chemical used to make plastics - during a spill in a 1989 train accident in Michigan.
During the past three weeks, protesters chained themselves to the train in Michigan, Ohio and South Carolina to try to force railroad officials to label the soil as hazardous waste and to return it to Michigan for disposal.
Owens told the panel Tuesday, "What was once a local problem has now evolved into a national shell game, where waste is shuttled between states without real solutions to the long-term problem of proper disposal."
He added, "We in the West are willing to do our part in waste management, but not at the expense of denuding our quality of life and our environment. . . .
"I fear we will someday have the `Western Great Desert National Hazardous Waste Disposal Complex,' similar to Yucca Mountain (a nuclear waste repository in Nevada) or the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (in New Mexico)."
He said the presence of such facilities in the West show "how the Intermountain Region has been used and abused as our nation's cesspool and repository."
Owens said states can do little until Congress gives them clear authority under the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution to regulate the transportation of solid and hazardous wastes.
He concluded that until then, "Wherever profit is to be found, I can guarantee there will be markets. The business of waste disposal is absolutely ripe for abuse, waste and fraud because of the disproportionate fees, the lack of standards and guidelines and the lack of national oversight."