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Hazardous Waste Management Technicians

History

The job of hazardous waste technician is one of the by-products of a booming hazardous waste management industry. Before the latter half of the 20th century, little was known about the harmful effects that years of seemingly innocuous waste disposal had on the environment.

The major sources of what is now considered hazardous waste before World War II were pesticides and fertilizer, under regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, and incidental products from a certain few industrial processes. In the post-war era, a nation now accustomed to the idea of science in their everyday lives enjoyed the products of war-year discoveries that were then finding applications in the home, like petroleum-based plastics. The nuclear age also ushered in the chemical age, and hazardous wastes were being produced at an alarming rate. Concern for the havoc that was being wreaked on the environment was heightened by well-publicized disasters like an oil spill off the coast of California in the late 1960s. The environmental legislation that this concern spawned did not delineate special regulations for hazardous waste at first. Under the requirements of the Clean Air Act, enacted in 1963, screens and scrubbers cleaned hazardous wastes from emissions before they became airborne. Similarly, the Clean Water Act, which was passed in 1972, created standards for municipal water and wastewater treatment plants that simply filtered hazardous waste from water supplies along with other solid wastes. The hazardous material that was left from these early environmental efforts was then simply dumped at regular landfills or burned, releasing toxic ash and residual hazardous material. In other words, whatever good was done by capturing these wastes in the first place was undone by the disposal methods that never treated the hazardous part of the waste.

This began to change in the mid-1970s, when the Environmental Protection Agency was given power by a succession of acts to monitor and control the production of hazardous waste. In 1980, a national panic was ignited by the discovery of hazardous chemical seepage in a housing development in Love Canal, New York. This shocking development, the threat to families and communities everywhere who were ignorant of the chemical danger that might surround them, made the problem of hazardous waste suddenly very real for the average American. In response to this, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was passed to address the problems of hazardous waste in general and specifically targeted closed or abandoned dumps across the nation. CERCLA, known as Superfund because of the billions of dollars allotted to this enormous task, and the 1986 Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act (SARA) set the standards and procedures for safe hazardous waste disposal that have created the entire hazardous waste industry. Superfund sites on the National Priorities List are those hazardous waste sites that have been determined the most threatening; 1,328 Superfund sites existed as of May 2016. Site cleanups are lengthy processes, involving years, millions of dollars, and complex legislation that steadily changes from year to year, region to region, and site to site.

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