A congressman asked a House subcommittee Thursday to toughen a bill aimed at resuming the availability of federal land for municipal landfills in the West.
Without amendments, the bill under consideration leaves the government "not doing its fair share to clean up," Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., told the national parks and public lands subcommittee of the House Interior Committee.Federal land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management has been leased and sold outright for landfills to hundreds of cities, towns and counties at below-market prices since 1954. The leases and deeds have contained clauses requiring a return to federal ownership if the land is used for purposes not stated in the lease.
This could leave the federal government liable for cleanup if hazardous materials are found in the landfills, even though those materials may have been placed there during municipal operation of the site.
Robert Burford, director of the bureau, told the subcommittee the liability was potentially "enormous," but he had no figures. Because of this potential, he suspended new deals in February 1987.
Bureau spokesman Bob Johnson said he did not know how many cities and counties wanted landfills, "but there is certainly interest."
"The maintenance of a waste disposal site facility and cleanup of a hazardous waste site are more properly the responsibility of the local and state governments and the Environmental Protection Agency, respectively," Burford said.
Without regular municipal landfills, "people are going to find a place" to put their garbage illegally, he said.
The environment subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee, chaired by Synar, said in a report last year that the bureau was ignoring EPA's guidelines for landfill operations that federal agencies are obliged to follow, even such provisions as requiring fences.
"Both the delinquent operator and the BLM, by their failure to act, are responsible for the mess," Synar said. "Now, if BLM just passes ownership of the sites off to local jurisdictions, it is not doing its fair share to clean up."
Also, he said, "To apportion the costs and responsibilities of any future cleanup, BLM needs to know the condition of the site when it leaves federal ownership."
Synar urged the subcommittee to require rigorous inspection before any land transfers. "Contaminated land should not be transferred until the federal government has taken corrective action to eliminate the hazards," he said, urging that the bill require new owners to agree to abide by all federal and state hazardous waste regulations.