The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act —commonly referred to as RCRA— is the United States' primary law governing the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste. Congress passed RCRA on October 21, 1976 to address the increasing problems the nation faced from our growing volume of municipal and industrial waste. RCRA, which amended the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, set national goals for:
- Protecting human health and the environment from the potential hazards of waste disposal
- Conserving energy and natural resources
- Reducing the amount of waste generated
- Ensuring that wastes are managed in an environmentally-sound manner
RCRA focuses only on active and future facilities and does not address abandoned or historical sites which are managed under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)—commonly known as Superfund.
Enacted in 1965 under Title II of the Clean Air Act of 1965, the Solid Waste Disposal Act focused on research, demonstrations, and training. It provided for sharing with the states the costs of making surveys of waste disposal practices and problems, and of developing waste management plans. The Resource Recovery Act of 1970 changed the whole tone of the legislation from efficiency of disposal to concern with the reclamation of energy and materials from solid waste. It authorized grants for demonstrating new resource recovery technology, and required annual reports from EPA on means of promoting recycling and reducing the generation of waste.
The federal government embarked on a more active, regulatory role, embodied in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. RCRA instituted the first federal permit program for hazardous waste management programs and prohibited open dumps. It encouraged source reduction and recycling, and promoted the safe disposal of municipal waste. The first RCRA regulations, "Hazardous Waste and Consolidated Permit Regulations," published in the Federal Register on May 19, 1980 (45 FR 33066; May 19, 1980), established the basiccradle to grave approach to hazardous waste management that exists today.
Under the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984, the federal government attempted to prevent future cleanup problems by prohibiting land disposal of untreated hazardous wastes; setting liner and leachate collection requirements for land disposal facilities; setting deadlines for closure of facilities not meeting standards; and establishing a corrective action program to investigate and clean up releases of hazardous wastes. Some of the other mandates of this strict law include increased enforcement authority for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more stringent hazardous waste management standards, and a comprehensive underground storage tank program.
RCRA has been amended on two occasions since HSWA. The Federal Facility Compliance Act of 1992 strengthened enforcement of RCRA at Federal facilities. The Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act of 1996 provided regulatory flexibility for land disposal of certain wastes.
|Year||Act||Public Law Number|
|1965||Solid Waste Disposal Act||P.L. 89-272, Title II|
|1970||Resource Recovery Act of 1970||P.L. 91-512|
|1976||Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976||P.L. 94-580|
|1980||Used Oil Recycling Act of 1980||P.L. 96-463|
|1980||Solid Waste Disposal Act Amendments of 1980||P.L. 96-482|
|1984||Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984||P.L. 98-616|
|1988||Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988||P.L. 100-582|
|1992||Federal Facility Compliance Act of 1992||P.L. 102-386|
|1996||Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act of 1996||P.L. 104-119|
To achieve its goals, RCRA established three distinct, yet interrelated, programs:
- The solid waste program, under RCRA Subtitle D, encourages states to develop comprehensive plans to manage nonhazardous industrial solid waste and municipal solid waste; sets criteria for municipal solid waste landfills and other solid waste disposal facilities; and prohibits the open dumping of solid waste.
- The hazardous waste program, under RCRA Subtitle C, establishes a system for controlling hazardous waste from the time it is generated units its ultimate disposal – in effect, from "cradle to grave".
- The underground storage tank (UST) program, under RCRA Subtitle I, regulates underground storage tanks containing hazardous substances and petroleum products.
Subtitle C Hazardous Waste Requirements
Subtitle C of RCRA created a hazardous waste management program. (12For more information, see EPA’s “Hazardous Waste: RCRA Subtitle C” website.) A waste is considered “hazardous” if it is a solid waste that is ignitable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic, or appears on a list of about 100 industrial process waste streams and more than 500 discarded commercial products and chemicals. Some wastes are specifically excluded, however, including irrigation return flows, industrial point source discharges (regulated under the Clean Water Act), and nuclear material covered by the Atomic Energy Act.
Under RCRA, hazardous waste generators must comply with regulations concerning record keeping and reporting, waste accumulation time limits, and storage requirements.(Hazardous waste generators are regulated in accordance with the amount of waste they generate each month. The EPA regulations specify three hazardous waste generator categories: large quantity generators [LQG, generators of more the 1,000 kilograms of hazardous waste per month], small quantity generators [SQG, generators of between 100 and 1,000 kilograms of hazardous waste per month], and conditionally exempt small quantity generators [CESQGs, generators of less than 100 kilograms of hazardous waste per month]. For more information about the requirements applicable to each generator category, see EPA’s “Hazardous Waste Generators” website) RCRA regulations also require hazardous waste generators; transporters; and treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs) to use a manifest system to track waste from its point of origin to its ultimate point of treatment or disposal (i.e., “cradle to grave”).
Transporters of hazardous waste must also meet certain standards. These regulations were coordinated by EPA with existing regulations of the Department of Transportation.
Hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs) are required to have permits, to comply with operating standards specified in that permit, to meet financial requirements in case of accidents, and to close their facilities in accordance with EPA regulations. The 1984 amendments imposed a number of new requirements on TSDFs with the intent of minimizing land disposal. Bulk or noncontainerized hazardous liquid wastes are prohibited from disposal in any landfill, and severe restrictions are placed on the disposal of containerized hazardous liquids, as well as on the disposal of nonhazardous liquids in hazardous waste landfills. The land disposal of specified highly hazardous wastes was phased out over the period from 1986 to 1990. EPA was directed to review all wastes that it has defined as hazardous and to make a determination as to the appropriateness of land disposal for them. Minimum technological standards were set for new landfills and surface impoundments requiring, in general, double liners, a leachate collection system, and groundwater monitoring.
States are encouraged and financially assisted to assume EPA’s hazardous waste program, which went into effect November 19, 1980. All 50 states and territories have been granted authority to implement the base RCRA program. State RCRA programs must be at least as stringent as the federal program.
As EPA develops new regulations, a state’s program must be reviewed to determine whether the state has authority to enforce comparable requirements. (If the new EPA standard is less stringent than a state’s existing standard, the state may choose not to adopt it.) As a result, many states are also authorized to implement individual RCRA program elements that EPA promulgated after 1984 (e.g., Corrective Action, Landfill Disposal Restrictions, and Recycled Used Oil Management Standards). For information on the status of individual state programs and authorities, see EPA’s “RCRA State Authorization” page.
Subtitle D Solid Waste Requirements
Subtitle D of RCRA establishes state and local governments as the primary planning, regulating, and implementing entities for the management of non-hazardous solid waste, such as household garbage and non-hazardous industrial solid waste. (See EPA’s “Hazardous Waste: RCRA Subtitle D” website.) A significant solid waste provision in RCRA is the prohibition of open dumps. This prohibition is implemented by the states, using EPA criteria to determine which facilities qualify as sanitary landfills and may remain open. EPA’s criteria were originally promulgated in 1979; open dumps were to close or be upgraded by September 13, 1984.
In the 1984 amendments to RCRA, EPA was required to revise the sanitary landfill criteria for facilities that receive hazardous waste from small businesses (i.e., conditionally exempt small quantity generators (CESQG)) or households. Using this authority, the agency promulgated revised regulations applicable to municipal solid waste landfills in October 1991, with an effective date of October 9, 1993, for most provisions. In general, the new criteria require liners, leachate collection, groundwater monitoring, and corrective action at municipal landfills. Other solid waste provisions authorized in RCRA include financial and technical assistance for states and local governments (most such assistance ended in FY1981 due to overall budget cutbacks); research, development, and demonstration authority (most of which also fell victim to budget cutbacks); and a procurement program, the goal of which is to stimulate markets for recycled products by requiring federal departments and agencies to “buy recycled.” While EPA is the lead agency under RCRA, the Department of Commerce is given several responsibilities for encouraging greater commercialization of resource recovery technology. The department has not played an active role, however.
Underground Storage Tanks
To address a nationwide problem of leaking underground storage tanks (USTs), Congress established a leak prevention, detection, and cleanup program through the 1984 RCRA amendments and the 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA).
The 1984 RCRA amendments created a federal program to regulate USTs containing petroleum and hazardous chemicals to limit corrosion and structural defects, and thus minimize future tank leaks. The law directed EPA to set operating requirements and technical standards for tank design and installation, leak detection, spill and overfill control, corrective action, and tank closure. The UST program (RCRA Subtitle I) is administered primarily by states. It requires registration of most underground tanks, bans the installation of unprotected tanks, sets federal technical standards for all tanks, coordinates federal and state regulatory efforts, and provides for federal inspection and enforcement.
In 1986, Congress created a petroleum UST response program by amending Subtitle I of RCRA through SARA (P.L. 99-499). Prior to SARA, EPA lacked explicit authority to clean up contamination from leaking underground petroleum tanks as Congress had specifically excluded petroleum products (although not petrochemicals) from the Superfund law. The 1986 provisions authorized the federal government to respond to petroleum spills and leaks, and created a Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Trust Fund to fund cleanup of leaks from petroleum USTs in cases where the UST owner or operator does not clean up a site. The LUST Trust Fund provides money for EPA to administer the program and for states to oversee cleanups, take enforcement actions, and undertake cleanups themselves when necessary. The money in the fund is derived primarily from a 0.1 cent-per-gallon federal tax on motor fuels and several other petroleum products.
The 1986 amendments also directed EPA to establish financial responsibility requirements for UST owners and operators to cover costs of taking corrective action and to compensate third parties for injury and property damage caused by leaking tanks. The law required EPA to issue regulations requiring tank owners and operators selling petroleum products to demonstrate minimum financial responsibility. The regulations require insurance coverage of $1 million, or alternatively, owners and operators may rely on state assurance funds to demonstrate financial responsibility.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-58) included in Title XV, Subtitle B, The Underground Storage Tank Compliance Act (USTCA). This act amended Subtitle I of the Solid Waste Disposal Act to add new leak prevention and enforcement provisions to the UST regulatory program and impose new requirements on states, EPA, and tank owners. The USTCA requires EPA, and states that receive funding under Subtitle I, to conduct compliance inspections of all USTs at least once every three years. It also requires states to comply with EPA guidance prohibiting fuel delivery to ineligible tanks; develop training requirements for UST operators and individuals responsible for tank maintenance and spill response; prepare compliance reports on government-owned tanks in the state; and implement groundwater protection measures for UST manufacturers and installers. The act also directed EPA to develop and implement a strategy to address UST releases on tribal lands.
The USTCA authorized the appropriation of $155 million annually for FY2006 through FY2011 from the LUST Trust Fund for states to use to implement the new UST leak prevention requirements and to administer state programs. Congress also authorized trust fund appropriations Environmental Laws: Summaries of Major Statutes Administered by EPA of $200 million annually for FY2006 through FY2011, for EPA and states to administer the LUST corrective action program, and another $200 million annually for FY2006 through FY2011, specifically for addressing releases involving methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) and other oxygenated fuels (e.g., ethanol).
RCRA contains stringent enforcement provisions. Criminal violations of Subtitle C (hazardous waste) requirements are punishable by fines of as much as $50,000 for each day of violation and/or imprisonment for as long as five years; knowingly endangering human life brings fines of as much as $250,000 ($1 million for a company or organization) and as long as 15 years imprisonment.
In cases not involving criminal conduct, the act authorizes civil and administrative penalties of as much as $25,000 per day of violation. EPA is authorized both to issue administrative compliance orders and to seek injunctive relief through the courts. Similar civil and administrative penalties (but not criminal penalties) apply to violations of the underground storage tank requirements in Subtitle I. Failure to close or upgrade open dumps can also be enforced by EPA in limited circumstances.
Like most environmental programs, RCRA in practice is largely enforced by state agencies exercising state authority equivalent to the federal. EPA retains the power to undertake enforcement in such “authorized” states, however: the act requires only that the Administrator give notice to the state in which a violation has occurred prior to issuing an order or commencing a civil action.
RCRA also provides for citizen suits both against persons and entities alleged to have violated standards or permit requirements and against EPA in cases where the Administrator has failed to perform an action that is nondiscretionary under the act.
Amendments to RCRA
RCRA has been amended several times. Some of those amendments were noncontroversial additions clarifying portions of the law, correcting clerical errors in the text, or encouraging the recycling of certain solid wastes. The most significant sets of amendments occurred in 1980, 1984, and 1992.
The Solid Waste Disposal Act Amendments of 1980 amended RCRA in several ways. It was intended, in part, to provide EPA with stronger enforcement authority to address illegal dumping of hazardous waste. It also authorized funds to conduct an inventory of hazardous waste sites and extended RCRA authorizations for appropriations through FY1982. Amending language contained in Superfund, P.L. 96-510, established an Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response at EPA.
The 1980 amendments also included provisions that excluded the following large-volume wastes from the definition of hazardous waste under Subtitle C of RCRA, referred to as “special wastes”: Environmental Laws: Summaries of Major Statutes Administered by EPA
- waste generated primarily from the combustion of coal or other fossil fuels;
- solid waste from the extraction, beneficiation, and processing of ores and minerals, including phosphate rock and overburden from the mining of uranium ore;
- cement kiln dust; and
- wastes generated during the exploration, development, and production of crude oil, natural gas, and geothermal energy.
At the time of the exclusion, these special wastes were believed to possess less risks to human health and the environment than the wastes being identified for regulation as hazardous waste.
The amendments specified that the hazardous waste exclusion would be held pending completion of a study and report to Congress by EPA for each waste category. The subsequent regulatory timeline and the determination of the appropriate waste management method for each category of special waste has been a complex and varied process. (For information on the regulatory status of each category of waste, see EPA’s Special Wastes website.) To date, special wastes largely have been regulated at the state level. However, a large spill of coal combustion wastes in December 2008 from a Tennessee Valley Authority facility in Kingston, Tennessee, has heightened interest in the extent to which this category of waste should be regulated under RCRA. ( For information on the status of regulatory proposals and related developments, see EPA’s Coal Combustion Residuals website) In addition to the possibility of other spills, there has been ongoing concern about the hazards associated with the potential leaching of contaminants from coal combustion waste disposal facilities into the environment over time. Whether uniform regulation at the federal level is necessary to prevent future spills or the potential for environmental contamination has been an issue. (For a discussion of these and other related issues, see CRS Report R41341, Regulating Coal Combustion Waste Disposal: Issues for Congress, by Linda Luther.)
Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984
The most significant set of amendments to RCRA was the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984 (HSWA), a complex law with many detailed technical requirements. In addition to restrictions on land disposal, and the inclusion of small quantity generators (SQGs) in the hazardous waste regulatory scheme that was summarized above, HSWA created the new regulatory program for underground storage tanks (see the above “Underground Storage Tanks” section of this report.) The amendments directed EPA to issue regulations governing those who produce, distribute, and use fuels produced from hazardous waste, including used oil. Under HSWA, hazardous waste facilities owned or operated by federal, state, or local government agencies must be inspected annually, and privately owned facilities must be inspected at least every two years. Each federal agency was required to submit to EPA an inventory of hazardous waste facilities it ever owned.
The 1984 law also imposed on EPA a timetable for issuing or denying permits for TSDFs; required permits to be for fixed terms not exceeding 10 years; terminated in 1985 the “interim status” of land disposal facilities that existed prior to RCRA’s enactment, unless they met certain requirements; required permit applications to be accompanied by information regarding the potential for public exposure to hazardous substances in connection with the facility; and authorized EPA to issue experimental permits for facilities demonstrating new technologies. EPA’s enforcement powers were increased, the list of prohibited actions constituting crimes was expanded, penalties were increased, and the citizen suit provisions were expanded. Other provisions prohibited the export of hazardous waste unless the government of the receiving country formally consented to accept it; created an ombudsman’s office in EPA to deal with RCRA-associated complaints, grievances, and requests for information; and reauthorized RCRA through FY1988 at a level of about $250 million per year.
HSWA also specified that owners or operators of TSDFs are responsible for investigating and, as necessary, cleaning up releases at or from their facilities, regardless of when the releases occurred. EPA refers to this cleanup of TSDFs under these statutory authorities as RCRA Corrective Action.
Finally, HSWA called for a National Ground Water Commission to assess and report to Congress in two years on groundwater issues and contamination from hazardous wastes. The commission was never funded and never established, however.
Federal Facility Compliance Act
The third major set of amendments was the Federal Facility Compliance Act of 1992. This act resolves the legal question of whether federal facilities are subject to enforcement actions under RCRA, by unequivocally waiving the government’s sovereign immunity from prosecution. As a result, states, EPA, and the Department of Justice can enforce the provisions of RCRA against federal facilities, and federal departments and agencies can be subjected to injunctions, administrative orders, and/or penalties for noncompliance. Furthermore, federal employees may be subject to criminal sanctions, including both fines and imprisonment under any federal or state solid or hazardous waste law. The act also contains special provisions applicable to mixtures of radioactive and hazardous waste at Department of Energy facilities and to munitions, military ships, and military sewage treatment facilities handling hazardous wastes.
The 104th Congress passed an additional set of amendments to RCRA, the Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act (P.L. 104-119). This act exempts hazardous waste from RCRA regulation if it is treated to a point where it no longer exhibits the characteristic that made it hazardous, and is subsequently disposed in a facility regulated under the Clean Water Act or in a Class I deep injection well regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. A second provision of the bill exempted small landfills located in arid or remote areas from groundwater monitoring requirements, provided there is no evidence of groundwater contamination.
Additional Selected Laws Affecting Solid Waste Management
Although not technically amending RCRA, Congress has enacted various solid/hazardous wasterelated measures, which are briefly summarized below.
Sanitary Food Transportation Act
The Sanitary Food Transportation Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-500) required the regulation of trucks and rail cars that haul both food and solid waste (a problem commonly referred to as “backhauling of garbage”). The act directed the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Transportation to promulgate regulations specifying (1) record keeping and identification requirements; (2) decontamination procedures for refrigerated trucks and rail cars; and (3) materials for construction of tank trucks, cargo tanks, and ancillary equipment.
The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (P.L. 101-549) contained a provision mandating stronger federal standards for solid waste incinerators. The law requires EPA to issue new source performance standards to control air emissions from municipal, hospital, and other commercial and industrial incinerators. New facilities must comply with the EPA rules within six months of the time they are issued, and existing units must comply within five years of issuance.
The Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 (Sections 6601-6610 of P.L. 101-508) was passed as part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990. The measure declared pollution prevention to be the national policy, and directed EPA to undertake a series of activities aimed at preventing the generation of pollutants, rather than controlling pollutants after they are created. Matching grants were authorized for states to establish technical assistance programs for businesses, and EPA was directed to establish a Source Reduction Clearinghouse to disseminate information. The act also imposed new reporting requirements on industry. Firms that were required to file an annual toxic chemical release form under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 must also file a report detailing their source reduction and recycling efforts over the previous year. A more complete description of the act, which addresses air and water pollution as well as waste, is provided in the first section of this report.
Indian Lands Open Dump Cleanup Act
The Indian Lands Open Dump Cleanup Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-399) required the Indian Health Service (IHS) to provide technical and financial support to inventory and close open dumps on Indian lands, and to maintain the sites after closure. According to IHS, only two of more than 600 waste dumps on Indian lands met current EPA regulations prior to the law’s enactment.
Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act
The 104th Congress passed legislation (P.L. 104-142) exempting battery collection and recycling programs from certain hazardous waste management requirements, prohibiting the use of mercury in batteries, and requiring labels on batteries to encourage proper disposal and recycling. By exempting battery collection and management programs from some parts of RCRA, the law was expected to stimulate new recycling programs.
Note: Significant potions of this article were extracted from from the Congressional Research Service Report RL30798, Environmental Laws: Summaries of Major Statutes Administered by the Environmental Protection Agency by David M. Bearden, Claudia Copeland, Linda Luther, James E. McCarthy, Linda-Jo Schierow, and Mary Tiemann (October 8, 2010).
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act: Legislative History, U.S. Department of Energy.
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act: Link to Full Text, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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