Faced with the possibility that its budget would be significantly cut by anti-environmental congressional Republicans, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepared for the worst as 1996 began. In the last few months, however, the agency has seen signs that it may fare better than expected in the drawn-out budget process.
In particular, after seeing polls and reading their mail, House Republicans have decided to revise their plans to cut back or eliminate environmental regulations. They're finding themselves out of step with popular sentiment.
For starters, a legislative stay of execution for EPA would mean that the agency's "reinvention of government" efforts would remain a top priority. To support President Clinton's drive to have federal agencies reinvent their regulatory practices and policies, EPA announced its 25-program improvement agenda in March 1995.
The agency is particularly keen on Project XL, which allows a regulated facility to try an alternative plan to meet environmental objectives, suspending strict adherence to regulations in achieving its goals.
Another pet project, the Common Sense Initiative, promotes "cleaner, cheaper, smarter" alternatives to traditional command-and-control regulatory approaches, according to EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner.
Other programs include cutting the paperwork burden on businesses and transferring environmental decision-making to state and local regulators.
At the agency's Office of Solid Waste (OSW), officials are hoping to make the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) rules more risk-based and easier to implement.
The Office of Solid Waste initiatives include re-examining how waste enters the hazardous waste regulatory system and developing voluntary guidelines for managing industrial, non-hazardous wastes.
"The RCRA program is so rigidly controlled by court order or statute we know very well what we have to do and when we have to do it," said Elliott Laws, EPA's assistant administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response.
"That's one of my frustrations," he continued. "There's not a whole lot of flexibility for us to do ... what we would like ... because we are so driven on the regulatory side by court orders."
As the Office of Solid Waste sees it, a "common sense" approach to RCRA means completing work on the Hazardous Waste Identification Rule.
The rule is intended to reduce the burdens of managing certain types of wastes which pose minimal hazards by allowing those wastes to exit from the Subtitle C regulatory program.
At press time, the House and Senate were working on bills dealing with contaminated media cleanup under RCRA.
Known as the "rifle shot" bill, the legislation would, for the first time, give states the authority to issue permits for handling remediation wastes without the rigmarole of Subtitle C requirements.
The intent is to facilitate a quicker, site-specific clean-up at contaminated sites.
"Our view is that if we get the rifle shot it will be ... easier for us to do some ... things on the HWIR side," said Laws.
As RCRA now reads, EPA has virtually no discretion to develop anything besides tough hazardous waste regulations, even for less risky substances.
"That's one [problem] with RCRA. It puts you down this track that you have to stay on. When [we] try and stray to do something that makes sense, we get shot down," Laws said. "Half of our court-ordered deadlines are because the agency tried to do something ... different ..., and, of course, that's not the way the statute is written," he added.
Laws and OSW Director Michael Shapiro insist that the agency is doing its best to reasonably interpret RCRA by filling gaps in the program with sensible rules and loosening some requirements that both EPA and the industry believe are unduly strict.
Even before the government shutdown last December, the agency was scrambling to keep up with RCRA activities.
While Laws had predicted long delays in hazardous and solid waste programs, he was hopeful that work on high-priority matters would continue apace.
"I think we're focusing as best we can on ... high risk, high environmental impact, high cost issues," he said.
For the municipal and industrial solid waste divisions, any sizable budget cuts could slow or even halt some areas where rule-making is nearly finished - the 1991 Subtitle D municipal solid waste landfill regulations, for example.
"So, as that activity gets completed and states get fully authorized for the Subtitle D program, [budget cuts] would [limit] our involvement in conventional municipal waste disposal issues," Shapiro said.