Out of sight, out of mind? Not when it comes to hazardous waste disposal. Did you know that hazardous waste generators are permanently responsible for the waste they dispose of, even decades after the fact?
Toxic Waste Disposal, Explained
Hazardous waste has a long history of dangerous pollution. Liquid, solid, or sludge, it can contain chemicals, metals, radiation, pathogens, or other unsafe materials. It can cause great harm to people, animals, and plant life through ground, air, and water contamination. Some toxins can endure in the environment for many years and build up over time. Humans and animals then absorb these toxic substances when they eat things like fish or ingest the water.
It’s not that long ago that hazardous wastes were loosely regulated, if at all. As a result, many communities were seriously contaminated. In 1976, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became responsible for overseeing toxic waste and its proper disposal. It is responsible for making sure hazardous waste generators comply with local, state, and federal regulation. When they don’t, it imposes stiff fines.
Toxic Waste Regulations
In the US, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulates how hazardous waste must be handled and stored. It is a multi-step process and there are separate, specific regulations for everything from academic laboratory wastes to cathode ray tubes, mixed radiological wastes, pharmaceutical wastes, and more.
While most hazardous waste generators are aware of their responsibility under RCRA, many do not realize the extent of the “cradle-to-grave” requirements for compliance. This is evidenced by the significant number of penalties and fines that are levied upon them each year.
There are several important facts you should know about RCRA cradle-to-grave laws.
- Hazardous waste generators are ultimately responsible for controlling the substances they produce. Your facility must determine if products and byproducts are hazardous waste and plan for their disposal according to EPA guidelines.EPA standards for hazardous waste treatment differ based on how much waste a facility generates each month. Small quantity generators (220 to 2200 pounds per month) follow less stringent standards than large quantity generators (2200 or more pounds per month).
- Hazardous waste generators are responsible for waste from initial generation through disposal and beyond. Nothing releases your facility from responsibility in this area. That means no time limit or expiration date. And having a third party transport and dispose of hazardous waste does not transfer responsibility.
That makes it critical for your facility to maintain compliance and ensure you’re operating strictly by the book.
Who’s Being Fined?
The penalties imposed by the EPA for violations and non-compliance are steep. For example, a violator who fails to take corrective action after found in non-compliance may be assessed a penalty of up to $70,117 per violation, per day of continued non-compliance! And any generator who knowingly submits false information is subject to civil penalties for each occurrence. These penalties may seem severe, but when you look at the damage done just by high-profile disasters like the Cuyahoga River Fire and Love Canal, they make more sense, especially as a deterrent.
For fiscal year 2018, the total of criminal fines, restitution, and court ordered projects was $88 million. The amount varies widely from year to year depending on whether there is a large disaster or fraud. In 2017, that figure was over $3 billion due to the car manufacturer Volkswagen’s cheating on government emissions tests.
Most EPA enforcement actions stem from violations of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, but thousands of lesser-known rules and regulations are enforced each year. New EPA regulations released in early 2019 affect the healthcare industry in particular. These new standards will gradually replace current hazardous waste generator rules, making it important for your facility to be aware of them in order to provide a safe and healthy workplace.
Highlights of the new regulations include:
- There is no change to the number of pharmaceuticals considered to be hazardous waste.
- Changes must be made to how hazardous waste is handled, stored, transported, and disposed of.
- Drain disposal is prohibited.
In addition, dual regulations are now eliminated, the nicotine listing is amended, and take back exceptions are maintained.
The state-by-state adoption process will be spread over time with Alaska, Iowa, and Puerto Rico putting them into effect in August 2019. Other states have until 2021 and/or 2022 to adopt the new regulations.
Less Risk, More Control
Medical waste management is a serious process. Fortunately, RCRA provided thorough information regarding how to properly segregate, handle, contain, store, transport, and dispose of hazardous waste. Appropriate planning and working with a trusted, local hazardous waste disposal provider can help your facility run smoothly while keeping it in compliance so that you never face expensive violation fees and penalties.