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WASHINGTON -- Reform of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act will be a Senate priority next year, according to the chairman of the committee that deals with environmental affairs.

Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., said this Congress has "essentially run out of time" to deal with RCRA before it recesses for a final time. Sen. Chafee, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, noted that there had been some progress in working out a bipartisan approach on how best to reform the 22-year-old law but that sufficient disagreements remained among key players to doom the effort for this year.

Although RCRA reform was not a top-level legislative goal for the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. in the current Congress, it was the last risk management-related reform effort to die. Creation of a uniform federal product liability system, overhaul of Superfund's liability system and significant reform of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration all had ranked higher on the risk management legislative wish list, but all failed.

"Obviously, we're disappointed, but it's not a huge surprise. On any environmental issue, business hasn't been able to reach a consensus about what they want to see on reform. It's just like what happened on Superfund; the consensus position was not really strong enough for people to fight for," said Anne Allen, director of government affairs for New York-based RIMS.

RCRA deals with, among other things, how waste generated by the cleanup of polluted areas, including Superfund sites, is treated. Even when so-called remediation waste presents little risk to the public, RCRA requires that it be treated like hazardous waste, which is subject to stringent rules and regulations.

RCRA reform had appeared likely during the current Congress. Reformers got a boost late last year when the General Accounting Office issued a report that called for modest reforms of the law that could save businesses more than $1 billion and perhaps as much as $2 billion annually (BI, Nov. 17, 1997). The GAO report said that without changes to RCRA's disposal, permit and minimum technology requirements as they apply to remediation waste, landowners are encouraged to avoid cleanups.

One of the chief proponents of Superfund and RCRA reform, Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., cited the GAO report as he promised to push forward with reform in the next session of the Senate.

"It's particularly troublesome that we come to this juncture, given the fact that just about a year ago we received a report from the GAO that demonstrated the urgency of fixing the remediation waste program," said Sen. Smith.

"Despite our best efforts, agreement could not be reached on a bill to save $2 billion a year," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., during a speech on the Senate floor.