The 1990s are shaping up to be a less-than-memorable decade for operators of commercial hazardous waste landfills.
Overall waste volumes for this specialized disposal sector have declined, while per-ton fees have fallen to their lowest levels in more than five years, according to the EI Guide to Hazardous Waste Land-fills in the United States and Can-ada.
Average market prices for disposal of process (as-generated) hazardous wastes in landfills declined approximately 15 percent between 1991 and 1993 and have continued to decline. Meanwhile, average prices for remediation wastes plummeted approximately 22 percent during the same period. In both cases, the price decline from 1991 to 1993 wiped out any price increases seen between 1989 and 1991, a time which many consider to be the hazardous waste industry's golden years.
Faced with deteriorating market conditions, some of the sector's key players have taken steps to cut their losses. Late last year, the na-tion's No. 1 landfiller of hazardous waste, Chemical Waste Manage-ment, decided to mothball one of its six hazardous waste landfill facilities as part of a $363 million downsizing and restructuring ef-fort. Meanwhile, some of Chem Waste's competitors - including Union Pacific subsidiary USPCI - are reportedly considering an exit from the business altogether.
Even during the boom years of the late 1980s, the number of commercial hazardous waste landfills in the United States have always been in decline. Over the last dec-ade, 34 hazardous landfills have shut their gates, while only one new commercial facility - Concord Resources Group's Highway 36 site in Colorado - has begun operation. Only 18 hazardous waste landfills remain in business in the United States today (see graph).
The most recent slump in the hazardous dump business began in the early 1990s, when a new set of EPA restrictions known as land bans routed many hazardous wastes away from landfills and into incinerators and other facilities. Demand has further softened as manufacturers and other hazardous waste generators changed procedures, added new equipment and even re-engineered production lines in order to reduce waste and cut disposal costs.
However, according to landfill operators, business has languished because little progress has been made to clean up contaminated industrial sites. Soil and other wastes from these sites comprised approximately 38 percent of commercial hazardous waste landfill volumes in 1993. Operators also blame the lack of demand on the recession and on environmental regulators, who they say aren't po-licing generators enough.
Whatever the reasons for the hazardous waste landfill sector's current slump, a rapid turnaround doesn't appear likely. More than two-thirds of the 21 American and Canadian landfill operators surveyed by EI predicted that disposal prices would remain constant or continue to spiral downward through the remainder of the year.
The pricing information is based on surveys and other research conducted by Environmental Informa-tion Ltd., a Minneapolis-based consulting and publishing firm that tracks the hazardous waste treatment and disposal industry.
For a copy of the 174-page re-port, contact: EI, 4801 West 81st Street, Suite 119, Minneapolis, Minn. 55437. (612) 831-2473.