Slashing EPA’s Budget Will Hinder Efforts to Improve Environmental Regulations

Posted on April 5, 2017 by Mark R. Sussman

          Since the election of President Trump and appointment of EPA Administrator Pruitt, more than a few articles and blogs have been written about the new administration’s plans to dismantle EPA, including the proposal to cut EPA’s budget by almost one third.   Even if one agrees that EPA needs to be “down-sized,” the massive cuts proposed by the Trump Administration are counter-productive.   If EPA fires thousands of environmental professionals, who will be left to repeal or revise unnecessary or unduly burdensome regulations?  Unlike Executive Orders, regulations cannot be rescinded or revised with the stroke of a pen.

          The hazardous waste regulations adopted to implement RCRA provide a case in point.  The Obama EPA adopted the final Hazardous Waste Generator Improvements Rule (discussed by a recent blog by Donald Stever) at the end of last year, acknowledging that the RCRA regulations are in many cases ambiguous, contain inconsistencies, and lack flexibility.  EPA took a year to address more than 200 comments before it finalized the rule.  Other aspects of the RCRA regulations also need to be modernized to encourage, rather than discourage, the reuse of materials derived from waste.

          Just one example involves the recycling of mercury-containing lamps, which have been regulated as Universal Waste since 1995.  Although fluorescent lamp manufacturers have reduced the amount of mercury in their lighting over time, such lamps are regulated as Universal Waste because many lamps exhibit the toxicity characteristic for mercury; and thus, would be classified as D009 hazardous waste.  While the Universal Waste Rules simplify the management of mercury containing lamps, the hazardous waste regulations and longstanding EPA interpretations of these rules impede the reuse of materials recovered through the recycling of universal waste lamps. 

          Two of the primary materials produced through lamp recycling are calcium phosphate powder and crushed glass.  Calcium phosphate powder removed from fluorescent lamps contains mercury at levels below the hazardous waste threshold, and the amount of mercury in such powder is typically further reduced by a retorting process.  Significantly, the phosphate powder also contains several rare earth elements, including Europium, Terbium and Yttrium, which are considered strategic materials by the United States Government, because of the need for such elements in many military and high-tech commercial products, such as cell phones, computer hard drives and other electronic equipment, and precision-guided munitions. 

          China controls about 95% of the production of rare earth elements.   Therefore, recycling calcium phosphate powder to produce rare earths provides a sustainable, domestic source of rare earths needed in the U.S. economy.  Unfortunately, as a waste derived material, regulators have limited the ability of businesses to stockpile calcium phosphate powder for future recycling, and much of this material is currently being disposed of in landfills, rather than being reserved for the recovery of rare earths.   

          Similarly, the crushed glass produced by lamp recycling has characteristics that make it a useful substitute for sand and other materials used in construction operations, such as for road sub-base and pipe bedding materials.  EPA’s view, however, is that since Universal Waste lamps would be considered D009 hazardous waste, glass produced as part of the recycling process is in the same hazardous waste treatability group as the initial universal waste lamps, and therefore, is subject to the Land Disposal Restrictions (LDR) for D009 –non-wastewaters. Thus, the glass must be tested to demonstrate compliance with the LDR standard of 0.025 mg/l for mercury using the TCLP test (designed to assess leachate in a landfill environment), before the glass can be used on land as a substitute for other products.  While the glass from lamp recycling typically complies with the LDR standard, the additional regulatory process discourages the reuse of this glass as a substitute for raw natural resources.

          If President Trump were truly interested in alleviating “unnecessary regulatory burdens placed on the American people”, EPA needs the resources to review specific regulations and identify those regulatory changes that will accomplish the President’s goals.  Slashing EPA’s budget, before identifying and promulgating the regulatory changes, will likely result in missed opportunities for improving environmental regulations.  Instead, massive reductions in staff and efforts to rescind many regulations without careful consideration will lead to mistakes and litigation, which is in no one’s interest.  Businesses need certainty, and the approach outlined by President Trump’s Executive Orders will instead result in more confusion and uncertainty.