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EPA at 50: Managing Waste Across the Nation

07/20/2020
Contact Information: 
EPA Press Office (press@epa.gov)

WASHINGTON (July 20, 2020) — This week, as part of EPA’s 50th anniversary celebration, 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.

 “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 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 (EPA),” 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.”

Signed into law in 1976, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) set standards for responsible solid waste management and established safeguards for hazardous wastes, from generation to transportation, treatment, storage and disposal. 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.

EPA, under the Trump Administration has made several achievements in preventing and protecting our nation’s land from hazardous waste contamination, including:

Waste Management:

  • Recently, EPA 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 percent 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 healthcare sector while maintaining protections of human health and the environment. The rule also 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 producing an estimated cost savings of $1.7 to 13 million annually.

Underground Storage Tanks:

  • EPA, states, and tribes have cleaned up more than 493,000 releases from underground storage tanks nationwide since inception of the program, 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 underground storage tank releases nation-wide from between 25,000-66,000 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 underground storage tank facilities.

Background: On October 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 program, which requires prevention and cleanup of releases from underground storage tanks. The Underground Storage Tanks 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 keep tank facilities in compliance.

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.

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

For more information about EPA’s Underground Storage Tanks program, please visit: https://www.epa.gov/ust.

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

Follow EPA throughout July on Twitter @EPALand for the latest information on what’s happening as “Cleaning Up America’s Land” month continues.

For more on EPA’s 50th Anniversary and how the agency is protecting America’s waters, land and air, visit: https://www.epa.gov/50, or follow us on social media using #EPAat50.