Do’s and Don’ts: Treating Hazardous Waste Without a RCRA Permit

Posted on 2/23/2016 by James Griffin

Under RCRA, anyone who treats hazardous waste needs a permit from the EPA. [40 CFR 270.1] US EPA defines hazardous waste “treatment” as any activity that renders a hazardous waste non-hazardous, less hazardous, reduced in volume, or more amenable for transport. [40 CFR 260.10]

Even some seemingly innocuous activities can meet EPA’s rather broad definition of treatment. Here is one example: An employee is managing a 55-gallon drum of contaminated linens. While adding linens to the drum, the employee presses down on the linens in the drum to make room for more. Under a strict reading of EPA’s treatment definition, pressing down on the linens does “reduce the volume” of the waste and therefore counts as a form of treatment. Does this mean a permit is required to squish down towels in a drum? 

Fortunately, the answer is no. EPA provides exceptions to its permit rules for some of the most common waste “treating” activities.

State Hazardous Waste Rules May Vary

While the following hazardous waste treatment options are available to generators without a permit under the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), states authorized to oversee their own programs may or may not allow for the same treatment methods. Be sure to verify that your state has not added additional restrictions before making decisions about managing your hazardous waste. Some states may require a permit, written authorization, or other official permission for a generator to engage in treatment activities. 
Exceptions to the RCRA Treatment Permit Rules

Generators can treat hazardous waste on site, without a RCRA permit, using the following methods:

A totally enclosed treatment unit—A “totally enclosed treatment unit” or “totally enclosed treatment facility” is a still, distillation column, pressure vessel, pipe, or other piece of equipment that is
  1. Directly connected to an industrial production process; and
  2. Constructed and operated in a manner to prevent the release of any hazardous waste or any constituent thereof into the environment during treatment. [40 CFR 260.10 and 270.1(c)(2)(iv)]
In order to meet EPA’s interpretation of “totally enclosed,” the unit must be completely contained on all sides and pose little or no potential for waste to escape through leaks, overflows, spills, gas emissions, etc. Back in 1983, EPA provided a Regulatory Clarification of this exclusion that is still useful today.
hazardous waste treatment units

Wastewater treatment units are tanks and tank systems regulated under the Clean Water Act that receive and treat hazardous wastewaters. Because these units are typically permitted under the Clean Water Act permit rules, a RCRA permit is not required to treat hazardous wastewater using these units. [40 CFR 260.10, 270.1]

An elementary neutralization unit is a tank, tank systems, container, transport vehicle, or vessel used to neutralize wastes that are hazardous under RCRA only because they exhibit the characteristic of corrosivity. [40 CFR 260.10, 270.1] For more information, read this past article.

Treating Hazardous Waste During Normal Management

There are also several points during the normal management of hazardous waste at which the waste can be treated without a RCRA permit:

Waste in process units—Because hazardous waste that’s generated inside a manufacturing process unit is not subject to regulation as waste until it exits the unit [40 CFR 261.4(c)], by organizing your systems the right way, you can treat the waste while it’s still inside the unit. If the material that exits the unit isn’t hazardous waste, then you don’t technically generate hazardous waste at all and are free to manage the waste as non-hazardous.

Treatment while accumulating—Remember the employee squishing linens to make more room in a 55-gallon drum? EPA refers to this kind of "treatment" as "treatment while accumulating." While not explicit in regulation, the US EPA long ago authorized generators of hazardous waste to use any non-thermal method of treatment on their hazardous waste during on-site accumulation under 40 CFR 262.34, without having to get a permit.

However, because the generator must still comply with accumulation requirements, and those include a mandate to keep the container closed when not adding/removing waste, the types of treatment available are in practice limited. [51 FR 10168, March 24, 1986]

Adding absorbents—When accumulating hazardous waste in a container, you may add absorbents to solidify liquids. This type of treatment-while-accumulating is explicitly authorized in regulation. 40 CFR 270.1(c)(2)(vii)]

These are just some of the available reliefs from RCRA treatment permit rules. Others include disassembling universal waste articles such as cathode ray tubes (CRTs), batteries, and mercury-containing equipment; and reusing hazardous waste before its reclaimed. For more on these strategies, read 4 Ways to Treat Hazardous Waste Without a Permit.

Tags: EPA, hazardous waste, RCRA, treatment

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