The heavy environmental costs of the Green New Deal

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the primary federal law regulating solid and hazardous waste, was signed into law on Oct. 21, 1976. Its 45 years of life have profoundly changed the American landscape. But its provision will be needed again as proponents of the Green New Deal (GND) blindly advocate trillions of dollars for clean energy without addressing the waste impacts of the projects. 

Prior to the RCRA’s enactment, waste was an afterthought to American industry. Waste was dumped in pits, ponds, lagoons and roadsides, and burned in open air. Rivers were on fire. Waste was managed by local governments with little knowledge of the issue. Only California had a comprehensive waste management plan. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could identify only 50 persons in 25 states who were fulltime waste managers.

The RCRA changed waste management overnight. It created a cradle-to-grave regulatory structure for the generation, transportation, treatment and disposal of hazardous waste, established guidelines for managing municipal waste, banned open dumping, transformed the recycling industry and imposed significant criminal and civil penalties on violators. 

Today, the RCRA manages 293 million tons of  municipal solid waste, disposed of at 1,296 facilities, and around 35 million tons of hazardous waste generated at 23,700 facilities, with few incidents of improper management.

RCRA’s passage would be unlikely today. It passed at a time when members of Congress spent more time discussing issues in committee, not on cable news sowing conflict. Both political parties agreed that the nation needed a waste management law and made it happen. Majority and minority staff were instructed by members to work together on the legislation. The bill’s sponsors – Reps. Fred Rooney (D-Pa.) and Joe Skubitz (R-Kan.) and Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.) – were legislators without big egos.

The RCRA was passed in an election year, which made floor time extremely scarce. The Senate passed its version in June 1976 by a vote of 88-3. The House, having a more comprehensive approach, did not report the bill out of committee until Sept. 9 and could not get floor consideration until Sept. 27, 1976, four days before the end of the session.

With time short, members directed staff to meet over the weekend before adjournment to produce a comprehensive, workable final product that could pass both chambers. To maneuver in the time available, the House took up the Senate-passed bill, kept the Senate bill number, struck the Senate text, inserted the negotiated text, passed it by 367-8 and sent it back to the Senate, which passed it by voice vote on Thursday, Sept. 30, the last day of the session. The RCRA was then sent to the president for signature. 

The EPA calls the RCRA “one of the great environmental success stories of the past 40 years.” The only question is whether GND proponents will, like American industry before 1976, ignore the waste? Consider: 

Solar panels: Seventy-eight million tons of panels will reach the end of their life by 2050. Solar power currently accounts for only 2.3 percent of our electric generation. But if it were 50 percent of our electricity, which is the Biden administration’s goal, that would create almost two billion tons of solar panel waste. U.S. average landfill costs are $54 per ton. Solar panels are rarely recycled due to the low value of the materials and the high cost of recycling. Moreover, landfilling may not be possible since solar panels contain silver, copper, cadmium and lead, which are hazardous wastes, making them enormously more expensive to treat or dispose of. 

Wind turbines: An estimated 720,000 blades, each 100 to 300 feet long, will need to be disposed over the next 20 years. They are too large for landfills, and transportation costs are high. It is estimated that the decommissioning of each wind tower is around $532,000. According to a Harvard study, the cost are four times that amount. Wind capacity is anticipated to double by 2030 and quadruple by 2050.

Another finding in the Harvard study  is that transitioning from wind to solar “would require five to 20 times more land than previously thought, and, if such large-scale wind farms were built, would warm average surface temperatures over the continental U.S. by 0.24 degrees Celsius.” 

Cost estimates for the GND range from $2.7 trillion to $93 trillion. But many experts believe the costs are incalculable without specific policy proposals.

Since the RCRA was designed to prevent this type of problem, Congress should undertake a serious analysis of the waste issues from green energy before spending trillions to create an avoidable problem.  

William L. Kovacs was the chief counsel for the House Subcommittee on Transpiration and Commerce during the development and enactment of the RCRA.                                                                                               

Tags Electronic waste Environment Protection Agency Green New Deal Hazardous waste Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Waste management

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