US EPA regulations allow hazardous waste generators to accumulate and treat hazardous waste on-site without obtaining a permit as long as they meet the applicable on-site management requirements for their status (Large Quantity Generator, Small Quantity Generator or Conditionally Exempt Small Quantity Generator) and some additional limitations on the forms of treatment. Generators should proceed with caution if they intend to treat their hazardous waste, however. Some forms of treatment allow you to exclude what otherwise would be hazardous waste from regulation by RCRA entirely, other treatment processes are exempt from RCRA, but the waste prior to – and perhaps after – treatment may not be excluded from regulation as a hazardous waste. Also if a permit is required but not obtained for a treatment method, you may find yourself facing fines as an unpermitted treatment facility. I’ll do my best to explain the allowances and restrictions of the regulations while pointing you to the applicable regulations and/or US EPA guidance documents. Keep in mind that these are Federal regulations; your State can have its own version of these regulations and its own interpretations and guidance documents. Be sure to check with your State regulatory agency to ensure compliance.
First, you should know that treatment is defined at 40 CFR 260.10 as: “any method, technique, or process, including neutralization, designed to change the physical, chemical, or biological character or composition of any hazardous waste so as to neutralize such waste, or so as to recover energy or material resources from the waste, or so as to render such waste non-hazardous, or less hazardous; safer to transport, store, or dispose of; or amenable for recovery, amenable for storage, or reduced in volume.”
Secondly, regardless of the treatment method you choose there are restrictions that limit the options available to youwithout a permit, they are:
- You may only treat the hazardous waste you generate on-site (Faxback 11066).
- Thermal treatment is not allowed. This restriction includes evaporation by applied or ambient heat as well(RCRA Online 12923).
- Dilution of the hazardous waste is not allowed per the Land Disposal Restrictions of 40 CFR 268.3.
- Elementary neutralization units – “A device used for neutralizing wastes that are hazardous only because they exhibit the corrosivity characteristic defined in §261.22 of this chapter, or they are listed in subpart D of part 261 of the chapter only for this reason; and meets the definition of tank, tank system, container, transport vehicle, or vessel in §260.10 of this chapter.”
- Wastewater treatment units – “A device which is part of a wastewater treatment facility that is subject to regulation under either section 402 or 307(b) of the Clean Water Act; and receives and treats or stores an influent wastewater that is a hazardous waste as defined in §261.3 of this chapter, or that generates and accumulates a wastewater treatment sludge that is a hazardous waste as defined in §261.3 of this chapter, or treats or stores a wastewater treatment sludge which is a hazardous waste as defined in §261.3 of this Chapter; and meets the definition of tank or tank system in §260.10 of this chapter.”
- Totally enclosed treatment units – “A facility for the treatment of hazardous waste which is directly connected to an industrial production process and which is constructed and operated in a manner which prevents the release of any hazardous waste or any constituent thereof into the environment during treatment. An example is a pipe in which waste acid is neutralized.”
If after treatment the waste no longer meets the definition of a hazardous waste, then it is no longer subject to RCRA. If treated immediately upon generation, it will not be subject to any of the requirements of RCRA including the requirement to count it towards your generator status threshold. However the storage of any hazardous waste prior to treatment must be counted toward your generator status and managed on-site as a hazardous waste until such time as treatment makes it non-hazardous. So, in order for the hazardous waste you generate on-site to be exempt from RCRA regulation, you must accomplish each of the following:
- Treat immediately upon generation.
- Use one of the treatment methods listed above.
- Treat the waste until no hazardous characteristics remain and the applicable Land Disposal Restriction treatment standards of 40 CFR 268 are met.
If your treatment method is not one of those three, and you wish to avoid the hassle of obtaining a RCRA permit as a treatment facility, then you must ensure that your treatment method takes place in compliance with the applicable regulations for one of the following three generator accumulation units (defined at 40 CFR 260.10) recognized by US EPA:
- Containers – “Any portable device in which a material is stored, transported, treated, disposed of, or otherwise handled.” Managed per 40 CFR 265, Subpart I.
- Tanks – “A stationary device, designed to contain an accumulation of hazardous waste which is constructed primarily of non-earthen materials (e.g., wood, concrete, steel, plastic) which provide structural support”.Managed per 40 CFR 265, Subpart J.
- Containment buildings – “A hazardous waste management unit that is used to store or treat hazardous waste under the provisions of subpart DD of parts 264 or 265 of this chapter.” Managed per 40 CFR 265, Subpart DD.
The US EPA has indicated in preambles to the Federal hazardous waste rules (46 FR 2806, January 12, 1981 & 51 FR 10168, March 24, 1986) and in written responses to queries (RO 11261) that generators may treat hazardous waste on-site in the above accumulation units. Be sure to comply with the regulations applicable to your generator status – LQG, SQG, or CESQG – as well, summarized here. An acceptable form of treatment is the addition of absorbent material to waste in a container or the addition of waste to absorbent material in a container at the first moment waste is placed in the container.
Note that a fourth hazardous waste management unit: Drip pads – “An engineered structure consisting of a curbed, free-draining base, constructed of non-earthen materials and designed to convey preservative kick-back or drippage from treated wood, precipitation, and surface water run-on to an associated collection system at wood preserving plants.” – and managed per 40 CFR 265, Subpart W, is not included in the above. US EPA does not allow the use of drip pads – which are specific to the wood-preserving industry – to be used for the treatment of hazardous waste.
Also note that the use of containment buildings for the accumulation or treatment of hazardous waste is restricted solely to Large Quantity Generators. If a Small Quantity Generator wishes to use a containment building, it will have to comply with the applicable LQG regulations.
Whatever treatment method you choose, it is likely that at some point you will generate a waste – perhaps a hazardous waste – as a result of the treatment process that requires disposal. Care must be taken in determining if, and when, this hazardous waste may be counted toward your generator status. Waste may be generated by one of the following methods:
- Residue from the on-going treatment process.
- The treated material no longer meets specifications and cannot be returned to use.
- A spent material accumulated on-site prior to treatment and reuse.
This US EPA written opinion answers that question and refers the reader to the preamble to a Federal Register and the applicable regulations in 40 CFR 261.5(d) for its justification (RCRA Online 11341). Part 261.5 refers specifically to Conditionally Exempt Small Quantity Generators of hazardous waste, but the waste counting method it contains applies to all hazardous waste generators. I suggest you read these documents for a more full explanation, but in sum any hazardous waste generated as a result of a treatment process need only be counted toward your generator status once in a calendar month.
If you are concerned about the cost of hazardous waste disposal and feel you have the type of waste that would respond well to one of the three treatment methods that don’t require a permit – elementary neutralization of a spent acid or base for example – you may wish to consider on-site treatment of your hazardous waste. I suggest a call to your state environmental agency after a thorough review of the applicable regulations to confirm your requirements.
The on-site treatment of hazardous waste is just one aspect of a generator’s hazardous waste management responsibilities that I address in my one day training events, I also cover the US DOT training requirements for HazMat Employees. See here for my full training schedule.