Funds dwindling to oversee Utah's hazardous waste

Funds dwindling to oversee Utah's hazardous waste

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Businesses that handle some of Utah's most dangerous materials are being inspected less often because of dwindling funds to pay for the work.

State monitoring of hazardous and radioactive waste has for years been funded by fees collected from commercial waste companies. That fund -- which reached nearly $6 million in 2006 -- has fallen off with the down economy, dwindling to just $30,000 at the end of the last fiscal year.

Utah is still adequately regulating hazardous waste operations but is no longer able to inspect them as often as in the past, said Dennis Downs, director of the state's hazardous and solid waste division. That not only includes monitoring of large hazardous waste disposal sites in Utah but also regular checks on hundreds of smaller operations -- from autobody shops and dry cleaners to oil refineries -- that generate and store dangerous materials.

"We don't have staff we used to have," Downs said.

In some cases, hazardous waste operations that were inspected once a week often now get a visit once every three weeks or so, he said. Travel and other costs have been trimmed -- and some jobs have been left unfilled -- as state regulators try to cope with less money.

"We have just tried to reprioritize our efforts," Downs said.

State officials found temporary money to make up a shortfall this year but are hoping the Legislature will provide a more permanent source for the program.

If the fund becomes insolvent, oversight could diminish so far that the federal government would have to step in.

No one wants to see that happen, said Bill Sinclair, deputy director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

The fund was formed in 1996 to provide steady financing for government agents to closely track hazardous and radioactive waste from its production and transportation to final disposal.

In 2007, nearly 83,000 tons of hazardous waste were produced in Utah from 90 facilities around the state, according to figures released earlier this year.

The state collects about $28 per ton of hazardous waste and 13 cent per ton for solid waste -- which is typically garbage collected from homes and businesses.

The fees have always fluctuated, dictated by trends in the construction and demolition industries, economic cycles and federal funds allocated for environmental cleanups. The slumping economy, though, has taken a deep bite into the waste business and, in turn, the amount of fees collected by the state.

"This is the worst I've seen it," Sinclair said.

State officials, landfill operators, hazardous waste officials and others have been meeting since May to come up with a solution. One possibility is raising collection fees. Another is jettisoning a provision that allocates the first $400,000 collected each year to the state's general fund, which legislators can use for any purpose.

Options are expected to be presented to the Legislature when it meets early next year.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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