An estimated 90,000 tons of hazardous waste enters the U.S. each year from foreign countries, but the Environmental Protection Agency often can’t say what or where the dangerous stuff is.
Wherever it goes, hazardous waste presents a huge public health risk to Americans, according to a new EPA Office of Inspector General Report.
“Based on our assessment of data in EPA information systems, the EPA has an incomplete picture of hazardous waste entering the country,” the IG report said. “This can give rise to undetected and unenforced violations of federal hazardous waste laws, which could result in unknown human and environmental exposure to toxic substances.”
The U.S. accepts other nations’ toxic waste — anything from used batteries to discarded cleaning fluids — because the U.S. is more equipped to handle such materials than other countries, and because the U.S. can sometimes turn them into valuable resources.
In other words, one country’s trash can become another country’s treasure, but that doesn’t mean the federal government is doing a great job handling toxic waste, the IG said.
EPA employees are supposed to track every shipment that enters the U.S. under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), but federal investigators found that EPA fails to generate half of the consent forms required to accompany each shipment.
Some toxic waste shipments analyzed never reached their intended destination, but the EPA couldn’t confirm whether those shipments were lost, let alone locate them, the IG said. The EPA officials also weren’t sure about the exact volume of hazardous waste entering the U.S. In some cases, they incorrectly identified where the waste shipment originated.
Most of the imported hazardous waste, about 69,000 tons a year, comes from Canada, followed by Mexico at 9,000 tons, Belgium at 3,000 tons, and Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines at 2,000 tons, according to EPA.
Blame may not rest completely with the EPA though, the IG said, because, while the agency is supposed to track imported hazardous waste, officials lack needed enforcement authority to block questionable shipments from reaching U.S. soil.