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Time to Walk the Walk: U.S. Hazardous Waste Management and Sustainable Development


March 2002









The basic structure of the domestic laws of the United States with respect to hazardous waste was established in the mid-and late 1970s and the mid-1980s. In the face of widespread public concern over the risks to health and the environment posed by improper hazardous waste disposal during that period, the U.S. Congress enacted (and also amended) two pieces of voluminous and comprehensive legislation: the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or the Superfund Act)1 and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).2 The former statute created a multifaceted scheme for eliminating dangerous conditions created by hazardous waste spills and past mis-disposal of hazardous waste. The latter legislation focused primarily on "cradle-to-grave" regulation of ongoing hazardous waste generation, transportation, and disposal.

In 1992, at the Rio Summit, our country pledged to go still further. By agreeing to the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development3 and Agenda 214, the United States promised to adopt an "overall cleaner production approach," with the goal of preventing or minimizing further hazardous waste generation. It also urged ratification of another international agreement, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste,5 which set forth more effective rules with respect to the transboundary shipping of hazardous wastes.