The Resource Conservation Recovery Act Is a Complex Law
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is a complex law that serves as the Federal basis for waste management everywhere in the country. Only a small part of the Act (Subtitle C) covers hazardous waste, and then only in broad strokes.
Understanding the law is not enough; the regulations that explain and enforce the law [40 CFR Parts 260-279] are themselves more than a thousand pages long, and even that is still not always enough.
Sometimes, the hazardous waste regulations do not adequately address all situations. So if you are unsure how the regulations apply to your operation, what do you do?
The Federal Register
Whenever the EPA creates a new regulation, or modifies an old one, the law requires the Agency to explain itself. These explanations appear in the preamble to a new or proposed rule when it is published in the Federal Register
. In many cases, when you find a regulation unclear or difficult to apply to a particular scenario, it is useful to refer to the preamble to see what EPA thought it meant when it said what it said.
For example: The EPA allows small quantity generators to accumulate hazardous waste for up to 270 days if they “…must transport his waste…over a distance of 200 miles or more for offsite treatment, storage, or disposal…” [40 CFR 262.34(e), emphasis added]. However, when promulgating the small quantity generator rules in 1986, the EPA specifically said that generators could send waste to a far away TSDF (and take advantage of the longer accumulation time) even if closer TSD facilities were available. Without knowing about the preamble, the word “must” in the regulations can be read more proscriptively than it is intended.
If you are unsure how to apply the regulations to a particular situation, you can always contact the EPA and ask a representative to interpret the regulations for you. You can also check to see if they have ever interpreted this situation before. Make sure to get the EPA’s response in writing for recordkeeping purposes.
The U.S. EPA has been answering questions about hazardous waste, and the hazardous waste regulations, since 1980. The Agency keeps a selection of letters of interpretation, guidance documents, and other publications in a free online database called “RCRA ONLINE
Keep in mind that letters of interpretation are not substitutes for regulation. Each letter is a specific response to a unique situation and cannot always be transferred to other times and places. And as often as the RCRA regulations are amended, a new letter may supersede an old one.
State Rules May Vary
One aspect of the hazardous waste regulations that can create great confusion is state authorization. Under RCRA, each U.S. state can create its own hazardous waste management program, as long as that program is at least as stringent as Federal standards. Most states don’t create too many extra or different regulations, but each enforcement agency will have its own policies and priorities about how to enforce the rules. These policies may be different from Federal interpretations and may or may not be written down.
When it comes to hazardous waste, it always pays to check with your State-level authorities, as well as with the U.S. EPA.