Identifying and Disposing of Hazardous Waste: Explanations for Small Business Owners
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority over matters concerning the proper disposal of hazardous waste. But what exactly is hazardous waste, and how should it be disposed of? What rules or regulations apply to small business owners in particular?
A number of industries and business types handle hazardous waste, some more than others, but failure to comply with federal and other regulations can result in fines or lawsuits and ultimately sink a small business. The following information will help you determine what, if any, materials handled by your company are hazardous and what to do about them.
What is Hazardous Waste?
Under EPA regulatory guidelines, to be considered hazardous any waste must first meet the definition of "solid waste" as defined by the EPA. The term "solid waste" does not have the common meaning these words typically conjure. In fact, "solid" waste under EPA laws and regulations means any solid, liquid, or contained gaseous material that is no longer being used and is either recycled, thrown away, or stored until enough is collected to treat or dispose of it.
If a waste meets the definition of "solid waste" it is considered to be hazardous if:
- It is one of over 400 wastes included on one of the four lists of hazardous waste as contained in the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulations, meaning that it is a "listed waste;" (i.e., it has been shown to be harmful to health and the environment when not properly managed); or
- It exhibits one of the four defined hazardous waste characteristics, meaning that it is a "characteristic waste." The four hazardous waste characteristics are:
(1) Ignitability (waste that catches on fire easily when exposed to heat, such as solvents, paint wastes, and gasoline);
(2) Corrosivity (waste that "eats" other matter, such as battery acid, caustic paint strippers, and some alkaline or lime-based floor cleaners);
(3) Reactivity (such as certain cyanides or sulfide-bearing wastes or any other waste that is unstable, explosive, or toxic when mixed with water, or another substance or exposed to heat or pressure); or
(4) Toxicity (wastes that are harmful or fatal when ingested or absorbed, such as gasoline and solvents).
Note: There are some exemptions from the definition of hazardous waste for waste that would otherwise meet these criteria.
Warning: Just because a particular waste is not listed on a RCRA regulations list, that does not necessarily mean it is not included on a state hazardous waste list. Both federal and state law for the appropriate jurisdiction need to be complied with.
Once I've Got Hazardous Waste, How Do I Get Rid of It?
There are specific laws and regulations that govern how hazardous waste may be disposed of, and there are other, separate federal laws that allow for the imposition of criminal penalties if hazardous waste is not disposed of properly. There are also state laws regarding the disposal of hazardous waste that must be followed.
The EPA has established three different sets of rules for the disposal of hazardous waste. The set a particular enterprise or company must comply with depends upon how much waste they "generate." Large quantity generators (LQGs) and small quantity generators (SQGs) have specific rules they each must follow. Then, there may be some conditionally exempt small quantity generators (CESQGs) who do not have to comply with hazardous waste management regulations.
The majority of business owners probably fall in the SQG category, that requires generation of between 220 and 2,200 pounds of waste per month, or the exempt CESQG category. LQGs must produce serious amounts of waste per month-more than 2,200 pounds per month-and have more stringent storage and disposal requirements. Information will only be provided, therefore, on storage and disposal requirements for SQGs.
SQGs must obtain an EPA identification number and are allowed to accumulate hazardous waste on-site for up to 180 days without having to obtain a permit. An extension may be granted if the waste must be transported more than 200 miles away for recovery, treatment, or disposal. SQGs must store their waste in tanks or containers that are properly constructed, labeled, sealed, and maintained. If the waste is stored where it was generated, it is called "satellite accumulated waste."
Most hazardous wastes may not be "land disposed" unless they meet "treatment standards" as set for by the EPA's Land Disposal Restrictions (LDR) program. It is the responsibility of the SQG to ensure that any waste that is to be land disposed either be treated to reduce hazardous constituents to a level approved by the EPA or by using a special, approved technology.
Warning: If hazardous waste is treated on-site in an unacceptable or unapproved manner the wrongdoer can face fines up to $50,000 per day of violation and jail time.
Other options for waste disposal are recycling and off-site disposal. In some circumstances, wastes can be disposed of on-site even though they may be considered hazardous. This is a limited exclusion that allows business owners to essentially "flush" wastes that are mixed with domestic sewage and are discharged to a publicly owned treatment works. The exclusion is commonly called the "domestic sewage exclusion" (DSE).
Caution: The DSE is the only acceptable method of on-site hazardous waste disposal, and it is not available in every situation.
Get Legal Help When Complying with Hazardous Waste Regulations
Business attorneys are valuable allies when running a small business, since they can help spot trouble on the horizon and help you avoid future legal disputes. Often, the cost of hiring a lawyer will be far less than the cost of fines or lawsuits. Consider meeting with a business and commercial law attorney, who can make sure you're in compliance with any regulations involving the disposal of hazardous waste.
FindLaw's Business Laws and Regulations section contains additional articles and resources.
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