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EPA Proposes Strengthening Rules for Open Burning & Open Detonation to Treat Waste Explosives

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced a rule to amend standards for facilities that use open burning and open detonation to treat waste explosives such as munitions, fireworks, flares or airbag propellants. 

If finalized, the rule would strengthen existing regulatory requirements to use safe and available alternative technologies to treat waste explosives and provide new technical standards for open burning and open detonation designed to better protect communities and military families from pollution. 

EPA also proposed a framework for permitting mobile treatment units aimed to expand potential treatment options for waste explosives and reduce the use of open burning and open detonation.

"Open burning and open detonation of waste explosives like fireworks or munitions can have serious environmental and public health impacts, oftentimes in communities already overburdened by pollution," EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a news release. "In close coordination with federal, state and local partners, EPA's proposal will work to better protect local communities from environmental and health harm while ensuring facilities are supported in the transition to new alternative technologies that safely manage explosive wastes." 

Explosive wastes include a range of items, including munitions, propellants, fireworks, and flares and are often treated by open burning and open detonation because historically, other safe modes of treatment have not been available. 

However, as described in 2019 reports by EPA and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, alternative technologies are now available to safely treat certain waste explosives.

Unlike treatment of other hazardous waste, open burning and open detonation occurs in the open, and emissions are released directly into the environment. 

The proposed rule responds to community concerns, including the potential for exposure to pollutants released into the air, deposited into soil and surface water, and leached into groundwater after an open burning and open detonation event. 

Communities raised additional concerns about noise and vibration from facilities using open burning and open detonation to treat waste explosives.

If finalized, the proposal is expected to reduce existing disproportionate and adverse impacts on communities with environmental justice concerns. Specifically, more frequent evaluations of alternatives to open burning and open detonation and new technical permitting standards for open burning and open detonation may accelerate the implementation of cleaner, safer alternative technologies.

Now for a little bit of background: In 1980, due to the potential risks to human health and the environment, EPA prohibited open burning of hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) with one exception for waste explosives "which cannot safely be disposed of through other modes of treatment." 

Since that time, facilities have been required to determine whether alternatives are safe and available. EPA committed to monitoring the progress of ongoing development of safe alternatives, as this explosives exception from the ban on open burning of hazardous waste was not intended to be indefinite.

In developing this proposal, EPA engaged with Tribes, state regulators, communities, and operators of OB/OD facilities, including the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 

In June 2022, EPA also issued a policy memorandum to communicate existing requirements for open burning and open detonation facilities and to provide guidance to EPA Regions, states, and territories for permitting open burning and open detonation units under RCRA to protect human health and the environment.  

After publication in the Federal Register, EPA will take public comment for 60 days on the proposed rule.

Editor’s Note: GASP staff is following this issue closely and will keep you posted as this process proceeds.

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