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Pacific Southwest, Region 9

Serving: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Pacific Islands, Tribal Nations

Solid Waste Management on Tribal Lands

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Regulations for Open Dumps, Landfills and Transfer Stations

Open Dumps

EPA defines an “open dump” as a multi-family dumpsite of any size or content. Open dumping is illegal under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The hazards of open dumping can include the release of toxics and heavy metals to the air and water; the increased presence of disease vectors such as rodents and insects; and physical hazards such as hypodermic needles, poisonous gases, and/or piercing objects.

EPA’s Pacific Southwest Tribal Solid Waste Program helps prevent open dumping in Indian Country by providing funding and technical assistance to develop solid waste management and enforcement programs. For dumpsites posing an imminent and substantial endangerment, EPA can enforce closure under RCRA Section 7003 or 4005c2. Citizens can bring federal civil suits under RCRA Section 7002 for potential or actual violations of RCRA.

We rely on our partnership with the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to rank the relative risk of open dumpsites and prioritize them for closure. We also work closely with BIA to enforce against the operators of specific sites when necessary.


Regulations and Standards

Research, Development and Demonstration Permits (RD&D) (PDF) (56 pp, 97K)

EPA provides technical assistance to improve compliance at tribal landfills. For landfill siting issues, EPA works in partnership with tribes, following the August 1997 draft guidance, entitled "Site-Specific Flexibility Requests for Municipal Solid Waste Landfills in Indian Country". This draft guidance document describes a process by which municipal solid waste landfill (MSWLF) owners and operators in Indian Country can request design and operating flexibility. This same flexibility is available to landfill owners and operators in states with EPA-approved permitting programs. The process encourages active dialogue among tribes, MSWLF owners and operators, EPA and the public.

Transfer Stations

Waste transfer stations are facilities where municipal solid waste is unloaded from collection vehicles and briefly held while it is reloaded onto larger transport vehicles for shipment to landfills or other treatment or disposal facilities.

No federal regulations exist that are specifically applicable to transfer stations; however, EPA developed a set of best management practices for transfer stations. Best practices for siting, design, and operation of waste transfer stations are described in the EPA publication, Waste Transfer Stations: A Manual for Decision-Making (PDF) (66 pp., 650K About PDF) (2002).

Are there any regulations for the management or disposal of garbage (solid waste)?

Yes. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulates the management and disposal of garbage. Subtitle D of RCRA (PDF) (14 pp., 331K About PDF)encourages environmentally sound solid waste management practices that maximize the reuse of recoverable materials and foster resource recovery. States and tribes often have additional regulations governing solid waste management.


Prior to the twentieth century, the United States produced minimal amounts of solid wastes. The industrial revolution and changes in our lifestyle caused accelerated growth in the volume of solid wastes produced by our society. The Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 addressed how to dispose safely of large volumes of municipal and industrial solid wastes. Its purpose was to protect human health and the environment, to reduce wastes, and to limit the generation of hazardous waste. In the mid-1970s, Congress and the public recognized that additional regulations were needed to ensure solid wastes were managed properly. These concerns resulted in the passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) as an amendment to the original waste disposal act of 1965. RCRA greatly expanded provisions for the management of hazardous wastes and provided additional protection to the quality of groundwater, surface water, the air and the land from contamination by solid waste. Initially, RCRA’s focus was on establishing a regulatory framework for hazardous waste management. The objectives of RCRA have evolved with amendments in 1980 and 1984, with the 1984 Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA) being particularly significant.

The Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) of 1965

The Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 was the first federal effort to improve waste disposal technology. Its principal aim was regulation of municipal waste disposal technology, while recognizing that solid waste management was essentially a local issue. The Environmental Protection Agency was tasked with developing standards for waste disposal. Further, it was the intent of Congress that states and tribes be responsible for implementing and enforcing the regulations.

Resource Recovery Act (RRA) of 1970

Increasing concerns over protection for human health and the environment lead to amendments of the 1965 SWDA, and the 1970 Resource Recovery Act (RRA) was passed. The RAA increased federal involvement with management of solid waste; it encouraged waste reduction and resource recovery and created national disposal criteria for hazardous wastes. This Act was the forerunner of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976

RCRA gave EPA the authority to control hazardous waste from the "cradle-to-grave." This includes the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. RCRA also set forth a framework for the management of non-hazardous wastes.

Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA) of 1984

HSWA required phasing out land disposal of hazardous waste. Some of the other mandates of this strict law include increased enforcement authority for EPA, more stringent hazardous waste management standards, and a comprehensive underground storage tank program.

How are tribes defined in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)?

Tribes are defined in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act as “Municipalities.” Because of this definition, the courts have ruled that EPA cannot approve Solid Waste Programs for Tribes (Backcountry against Dumps v. EPA). Tribes are responsible for implementing and enforcing the minimal requirements outlined in 40 CFR (parts 257 and 258). This, however, does not prevent a tribe from using its own sovereignty to develop a solid waste program, providing that the standards are at least equal to or exceed the minimal federal standards found in 40 CFR. A tribe may acquire “Site Specific Flexibility (PDF) (30 pp., 224K About PDF)” for landfill siting through a petition process to the Environmental Protection Agency.

What is EPA’s role relative to states and tribes?

EPA’s role with respect to state solid waste management plans is limited to:

  • Establishing guidelines for the development and implementation of state plans
  • Providing technical assistance
  • Approving plans that comply with these requirements
  • Ensuring state programs are in compliance with federal law

The main responsibility for developing and implementing state plans lies with each state.

EPA’s role with respect to tribal plans is limited to:

  • Establishing guidelines for the development and implementation of tribal plans
  • Providing technical assistance

The responsibility for developing and implementing tribal plans lies with each tribe.

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