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Hazardous Waste Management Specialists


Today, hazardous waste management specialists oversee the handling of hundreds of substances the government identifies as hazardous to human health or the environment. However, this was not always the case. Prior to World War II, hazardous waste consisted of pesticides, which were under the regulation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as by-products from a few industrial processes. Scientists and engineers who worked for the FDA or private industry monitored the disposal of these wastes to the minimal extent they were required to do so. Before the environmental movement in the late 1960s, these wastes were handled much like regular garbage, dumped directly into open waterways, buried in landfills, and stored or buried in 55-gallon drums at industrial sites.

With the emergence of the nuclear age came a new waste that no one seemed to know how to handle: radioactive waste. This waste presented unique challenges because of its insidious nature; it is generally colorless, odorless and remains hazardous for hundreds of years. Government scientists and engineers were the first to work on proper disposal with utilities that produced such waste (nuclear power plants). Today, hazardous waste management specialists work with these professionals on the handling of radioactive waste.

Postwar America also saw the beginnings of widespread use of synthetic materials: As one advertisement from the 1950s put it, America could enjoy "better living through chemistry." Unfortunately, this improvement also had a darker side. The tons of chemical wastes that chemical industries produced, in addition to some of the products themselves, were to have adverse and long-lasting effects on human health and the environment that no one foresaw. Crude oil gushing from a Union Oil Company's platform covered beaches in Santa Barbara in early 1969; only five months later the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire. Public outrage directed at environmental disasters such as these signaled the end of such cavalier practices.

During the flurry of environmentally directed legislation in the 1970s, hazardous waste was not considered different from other types of pollution. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 gave the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) power to assign permits for waste production and disposal, to track waste, to inspect facilities, and to fine offenders for noncompliance. That same year, the Toxic Substance Control Act forced manufacturers to submit formal notifications before they started commercially producing substances that could be toxic. Four criteria determine whether waste is hazardous: toxicity, ignitability, corrosivity, and reactivity.

This spate of legislation was thought to cover all aspects of hazardous substance management. But as the citizens of Love Canal (a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York) found in 1978, this wasn't exactly the case. A rash of sickness there triggered an investigation that uncovered 21,900 tons of chemical wastes buried in 55-gallon drums that had leaked into basements of houses and the local public school. The resulting publicity led to the discovery of thousands of similar sites throughout the United States. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) was the political response to the furor surrounding these environmental crises.

CERCLA, or Superfund, as it came to be known, is a government fund that selects and pays for cleanup of abandoned, inoperative contaminated sites. Superfund also monitors new spills. Superfund established a National Priorities List of thousands of the worst sites, giving a budget and a timeline for completion of cleanup at these sites. In 1985, after a lukewarm beginning, Superfund was strengthened by the Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act (SARA). SARA expanded the environmental cleanup budget, allowed for civil suits against violators of the acts, and gave the EPA standards and deadlines to meet. Superfund undergoes constant review and evolution: Some companies hire individuals whose job consists solely of tracking Superfund and associated legislative changes.

Superfund is only one example of how opportunities have grown for people who specialize in the handling of hazardous waste. The evolution of environmental awareness has created jobs for people who can handle a variety of hazardous wastes, including leachate from municipal landfills, gases emitted from industrial smokestacks, and chemicals buried years ago all over the United States.

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