Fine-Tuning Subtitle D

It's no secret that changes sometimes come slowly in the waste industry. Yet nearly 11 years after sweeping landfill regulations were instituted in 1991, new waste streams and technologies are forcing the federal government to fine-tune its policies on bioreactors, landfill gas, e-waste, site location, and research and demonstration sites.

Specifically, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., recently proposed five new rules to address:

  • Amendments to the maximum achievable control technology (MACT) rule for bioreactor landfills that require facilities that add water to install gas collection/destruction equipment prior to adding liquids;

  • Research, development and demonstration (RD&D) permits for municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills that allow approved states to waive/alter Subtitle D rules for research programs;

  • Clarifications to New Source Performance Standard (NSPS) rules that define who is responsible for Clean Air Act requirements when landfill gas is sold to a third party;

  • Exemption from hazardous waste management rules for cathode ray tubes (CRTs) that are recycled; and

  • Adoption of conforming rules for a federal law that prohibits locating MSW landfills within six miles of certain airports.

While the proposals were published to clarify existing landfill rules and facilitate new waste disposal and recycling infrastructures, they are drawing some controversy.

Subtitle D Theory

It has been more than a decade since the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), specifically Subtitle D, cleaned up the way waste managers do business. Subtitle D encouraged states to develop plans that encouraged environmentally sound solid waste management practices, as well as the closing or upgrading of all unsound MSW landfills.

In the past few months, the EPA has sought feedback on its five proposed rules, which address new technologies and waste streams. Both industry associations and environmental groups have voiced concerns.

Defining Bioreactor Landfills

Two of the rules deal with the growing bioreactor landfill trend. Bioreactor landfills use biological processes to change and stabilize organic waste compounds by adding liquids to the waste. Proponents of this technology say it accelerates waste decomposition, increases landfill capacity, maximizes landfill gas recovery and improves opportunities for leachate treatment and storage.

Ideally, after a bioreactor landfill closes, landfill gas and leachate should quickly drop to stable and low levels. Although bioreactors don't meet the original Subtitle D requirements, most environmental concerns have been resolved, according to a survey of 130 bioreactor landfills by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md. “Information on leachate-recirculating landfills in existence worldwide is similarly positive,” the survey states.

The EPA has proposed amending the MACT rule to require bioreactor landfills to install gas collection and destruction equipment before additional water is added to the waste. But because bioreactor technology is relatively new, some in the industry believe the proposal is premature.

“We believe that the existing information on emissions from bioreactor landfills is insufficient for the development of maximum achievable control technology (MACT) standards,” says Edward Repa, director of environmental programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association's Landfill Institute, Washington, D.C., in his submitted comments to the EPA. “Bioreactor landfills are currently in the developmental stage.”

Furthermore, the proposed rule seeks to define what constitutes a bioreactor landfill. The proposal states that a bioreactor is “any landfill or portion of a landfill where liquid other than leachate is added in a controlled fashion into the waste mass (often in combination with recirculating leachate) to reach a minimum average moisture content of 40 percent by weight or greater.”

Repa contends that the 40-percent cutoff value is not supported by data. Most bioreactor work has taken place at MSW landfills that were converted to bioreactor operations, he explains. Very few landfills have been operated as bioreactors from the start, and the data from these operations will not be available for a few years.

The proposal to require gas collection to be installed before adding more liquids is based on 10 operational bioreactor landfills used to establish the MACT standard. The Landfill Institute argues that these 10 landfills are experimental and do not represent full-size bioreactor landfills.

“The Institute suggests that any regulatory decision on the air emissions for … bioreactor landfills be delayed until scientifically defensible data becomes available,” Repa has said.

Promoting R&D

To aid such data collection, another proposed rule would allow approved states to issue research, development and demonstration permits for certain MSW landfills. The permits would waive or alter Subtitle D rules for research programs at such facilities.

“We don't want to stop research that may improve the environmental protection” of bioreactors, Repa says, “because what happens in the laboratory may not happen in the real world.”

The Landfill Institute has supported the EPA's efforts to develop a research and development program. But the current criteria, according to the Institute, are too restrictive to allow for new technologies and innovations, such as bioreactors. Most importantly, the Institute agrees with the proposal's assertion that operating a facility under an RD&D permit will not pose additional risks to human health and the environment than the risks that would result from current MSW landfill criteria.

“The added flexibilities suggested by this RD&D permitting system are long overdue,” wrote John Skinner, SWANA executive director and CEO, in the comments he submitted to the EPA. “These flexibilities will allow technical advancements in landfill development and create the data needed for the rewrite and update of the existing Subtitle D rule.”

Skinner has expressed concern about the language ensuring equal environmental protection. “While the intent of such [RD&D] proposals would be to achieve equivalence with Subtitle D protections of human health and the environment,” he wrote, “the very nature of such RD&D proposals is that the technology being proposed has not been demonstrated to the same level … as long-standing Subtitle D provisions.”

SWANA suggests the proposal should include language that recognizes the intent of equal protection while acknowledging that data to prove such protection might not exist to the level that they do for existing facilities.

Environmentalists claim that the proposed rule will deregulate individual states' power to set minimum landfill standards, instead of encouraging innovation.

In joint comments, the Grassroots Recycling Network, Atlanta, the Natural Resources Defense Council, New York, and Friends of the Earth, Washington, D.C., have stated that “the rule would disperse the terms by which research on new landfill designs or operating conditions are conducted across the country.” Such dispersion, they have said, would disrupt “any ability to rationally coordinate tests and protocols and [make] it impossible to produce scientifically valid data to use as the basis for future amendments to the rules.”

More Ways To Handle LFG

Recognizing that reducing emissions also is essential to protecting human health and the environment, another recent EPA proposal clarifies New Source Performance Standard (NSPS) rules that define who is responsible for Clean Air Act requirements when landfill gas is sold to a third party.

The proposal addresses:

  • Who is responsible for compliance activities conducted onsite;

  • What constitutes treated landfill gas; and

  • Compliance activities conducted by third parties with systems located offsite.

According to the Landfill Institute, this proposal resolves potential ambiguities and inconsistencies in the NSPS rules and, among other things, encourages new projects to convert landfill gas to usable energy.

Significantly, the proposed amendments define an MSW landfill owner/operator as any entity that owns or operates any “stationary equipment located on the same property as a [MSW] landfill facility that is used to collect, control or treat landfill gas.”

This definition broadens the applicability of NSPS rules to third parties on the landfill site if they are operating landfill gas equipment or using treated or untreated landfill gas onsite. A broader definition could impose compliance obligations on third parties, the Landfill Institute says.

The proposed rule also identifies what constitutes landfill gas treatment to ensure that it is adequately prepared for combustion in gas-to-energy projects. The proposed rule points to filtration, dewatering and compression as accepted treatment systems. However, the Landfill Institute argues that effective alternative “treatment systems” must be considered, too.

For example, the Institute has found that wire mesh screens work nearly as well as more common filtration devices. Instead of just relying on chillers for dewatering, the Institute also recommends mechanical gravity-based equipment known as “knockout pots.”

The proposed rule also discusses compression for moving gas from the collection point to combustion. But another option would be to use blowers, the Institute suggests.

The Landfill Institute also says the rule generally is too rigid about compliance activities for third-party operators, whether they are on or offsite. The wide variety of innovative approaches to using landfill gas “encompass a myriad of site-specific arrangements between landfill owner/operators and third parties,” it says.

Freeing UP CRTs

Probably the most controversial proposal forwarded by the EPA involves the disposal of cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) and other mercury-containing devices. The proposed rule exempts broken or used CRTs from the definition of solid waste, with the aim of making it easier to properly recycle these devices.

The NSWMA believes that such an exemption would foster a CRT recycling infrastructure. “NSWMA agrees a conditional exclusion will offer significant relief from the current regulatory program without threatening the public health or environment,” wrote Bruce Parker, NSWMA president and CEO, in his prepared comments. It also would allow a recycling infrastructure to develop, he continued, “free of unnecessary costs and potential delays caused by the siting and permitting requirements imposed on facilities that are designated as hazardous waste management facilities.”

Yet many groups have raised concerns that the EPA's proposed rule would increase “sham recycling” and exports to other countries where recycling is not as safely conducted. The Basel Action Network, a waste-export watchdog based in Seattle, has commented that RCRA should be amended to forbid “all CRTs, CRT glass, circuit boards, and all equipment containing same, and all universal wastes, from being placed into solid waste landfills or incinerators for any reason, and instead, must be taken to a licensed recycler, returned to the retailer from which they were purchased or to the manufacturer within the country of consumption.”

NSWMA argues that reporting exports would help to control illegal dumping and sham recycling. “EPA should require the reporting of exports of exempt material, and the tracking of domestic shipments, without imposing universal waste rules on used CRTs,” Parker wrote.

The EPA argues that exempting CRTs from the solid waste definition also exempts the agency from the applicable reporting requirements.

NSWMA disagrees. Parker notes that not only would reporting exports “reassure the public,” but also “the requirement can be imposed as a condition of the exclusion from the definition of solid waste in the same manner that other conditions (i.e. packaging, labeling, storage) are imposed.”

Conforming to the Law

The last EPA proposal on the table is the uncontroversial conforming rule for a federal law that prohibits locating MSW landfills within six miles of certain sized airports. The Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century applied restrictions to specified smaller public airports to address the hazard that birds attracted to landfills may pose to aircraft operations. The EPA did not expect any adverse comments on the proposed regulation.

It is expected that all the proposed rules eventually will be finalized once the agency incorporates public comments. In many ways, the EPA is fine-tuning the unfinished business of Subtitle D. As long as human health and the environment are stringently protected, these rules should sharpen the efficiency and effectiveness of tomorrow's waste disposal and recycling systems.

Kim A. O'Connell is a Waste Age contributing editor based in Arlington, Va.