As hazardous waste landfill operators worry about long-term profits, state regulators and affected communities are worrying if there will be enough money to pay for proper post-closure care.
Not long ago, prospects were rosy for the 18 licensed and operating commercial hazardous waste landfills in the United States. Acting on the belief that disposal capacity was dwindling, hazardous waste generators paid enormous sums to landfill operators who watched profits soar. Meanwhile, toxic waste site cleanups by government and industry continued apace.
In the past few years, however, manufacturers and processors have taken to heart long-standing pleas for waste minimization. By cutting the amount of waste generated, both the environment and the bottom line have benefited. Less waste has been shipped to management and disposal facilities and there have been lower invoices for hazardous waste services.
While industry figures have been good for the generators, they have been unfortunate for the waste service industry. Disposal volume in 1993 dropped 15 percent and since 1992, prices have been down by al-most one-third, according to Un-ion Pacific Corp., who along with WMX Technologies and Laidlaw are the most prominent hazardous waste landfill operators. Industry watchers predict that the decline will continue throughout 1994.
State laws require owners and operators of solid waste and hazardous waste landfills to estimate the costs of post-closure care and to assure that sufficient money will be on hand for the necessary remedial work. As a result, the industry must take on massive costs to properly close landfills and monitor them for leaks and contamination for 30 years.
One industry analyst has even compared the financial commitments of landfill owners to Social Security, both of which have "a de-clining base [new waste to be bur-ied] to pay for an ever-growing burden from the past," he said.
Because companies have time to find other ways to meet future fi-nancial obligations, falling profits and an uncertain future are not creating a current crisis. State en-vironmental officials are carefully watching hazardous waste disposal firms because they don't want to sort out cleanup liability if a hazardous waste facility owner goes broke. Corporate promises are no longer enough. Regulators want in-surance policies from solid companies, fully capitalized trust funds, bank letters of credit and other guarantees that don't depend on the landfill operator's financial well-being.
South Carolina's environmental agency, for example, is demanding that Laidlaw deposit nearly $15 million each year into a trust fund to monitor the company's Pine-woods facility for 100 years. The state wants $133 million in cash by the year 2004. Laidlaw has gone to court fighting this requirement, ar-guing that corporate promises to pay are legally sufficient and that the state is asking for too much money.
Chemical Waste Management, a division of WMX Technologies, uses corporate guarantees to cover post-closure obligations at seven of its landfills. Landfill opponents who worry about the financial viability of large, well-managed firms over the long haul are not satisfied with these kinds of assurances. More-over, the 30-year monitoring re-quirement is too short, they say, and it doesn't cover leaks that, as the opponents claim, are sure to develop later.
WMX would not rule out monitoring longer than 30 years if necessary, according to a company financial officer who added, "We own the property. Regardless of what the regulations stated, I don't think we could just walk away," he told The Wall Street Journal.