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Hazardous Waste Management in the United States

Melvin E. Keener, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Coalition for Responsible Waste Incineration

Presented at
6th International Symposium
Hazardous Waste Management

Odense, Denmark
September 10-13, 1996


The hazardous waste management system in the United States is governed by several laws, more than 1200 pages of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, and numerous guidance and policy documents. In addition, most states have authorized hazardous waste management systems. This paper will describe the primary Federal regulations effecting hazardous waste and how those regulations effect the hazardous waste industry.

How Regulations are Developed in the United States

The Congress of the United States starts the process by passing laws that gives the Executive Branch (in this case, EPA) general guidance on what regulations to develop. The legislative process is open, giving all interested parties an opportunity to express opinions on the legislation in question. Once the legislation has passed both Houses of Congress, it is signed by the President into law. The primary law covering hazardous waste management is the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). RCRA was enacted in 1976 as an amendment to the Solid Waste Disposal Act. RCRA was significantly amended in 1984 by the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA), restricting land placement of hazardous wastes, among other changes. An amendment in 1986 added corrective actions to leaking underground storage tanks. The four major programs under RCRA are:

  • Subtitle D - Solid waste management;
  • Subtitle C - Hazardous waste management;
  • Subtitle I - Underground storage tank; and
  • Subtitle J - Medical waste.
Once the President signs legislation into law, EPA develops the regulation to implement that law. The process of developing regulation is based upon a set procedure outlined in the Administrative Procedures Act. EPA develops a proposed rule. This process can be open to the public or EPA can choose not to involve the public. EPA then publishes the proposed rule in the Federal Register allowing all interested parties to comment on the proposed rule. EPA takes those comments and develops a final rule. This process may take 5-10 years from initiation of a rulemaking to the promulgation of a final rule. The regulations governing hazardous waste are located in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Parts 260 to 299. In addition to regulations, EPA also issues guidance and policy statements. Although neither has the weight of law (as does regulations), they are often treated as such. Guidance is a document that describes how something is done (e.g., the methods used in current risk assessment). Policy describes what should be done (e.g., all hazardous waste incinerators, when renewing their permits, should perform a site-specific risk assessment). Whereas regulations have to be published in the Federal Register, policy and guidance statements are often scattered in different publications and memos, often making them difficult to locate.

Defining Hazardous Waste

The first step in the hazardous waste management system in the United States is determining if a material is a solid waste.

EPA defines a solid waste as any solid, liquid, or contained gaseous material that is being discarded by being disposed of, burned or incinerated, or recycled. It can be the product of a manufacturing process, a commercial product used in the process (such as a solvent), or a product that is outdated. Materials that are recycled or burned to recover energy (such as used lubricating oil) may be considered a waste. RCRA specifically excludes certain wastes. These include:

  • Domestic sewage;
  • Industrial wastewater regulated under the Clean Water Act;
  • Irrigations return flows;
  • Nuclear material covered under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954; and
  • Bevill wastes.
RCRA regulations (40 CFR 261) specify that a solid waste is hazardous if it is not excluded from regulation and meets any of the following conditions:
  • Exhibits any characteristic of a hazardous waste;
  • Has been listed as a hazardous waste;
  • Is a mixture containing a hazardous waste; and
  • Is derived from the treatment, storage or disposal of a hazardous waste.
EPA has identified four characteristics for hazardous waste. Any solid waste exhibiting one or more of these characteristics is classified as hazardous under RCRA:
  • Ignitability
  • Corrosivity
  • Reactivity; or
  • Toxicity.
A solid waste is considered a hazardous waste due to its ignitability (40 CFR 261.21) if it exhibits any of the following characteristics:
  1. A liquid, except aqueous solutions containing less than 24% alcohol, that has a flash point less than 60 C;
  2. A non-liquid capable, under normal conditions, of spontaneous and sustained combustion;
  3. An ignitable compressed gas; or
  4. An oxidizer.
Hazardous wastes that meet these criteria are given a D001 waste code.

A solid waste that exhibits any of the following properties is considered a hazardous waste due to its corrosivity (40 CFR 261.22):

  1. An aqueous solution with pH less than or equal to 2.0 or greater than or equal to 12.5; or
  2. A liquid that corrodes steel at a rate greater than 1/4 inch per year at a temperature of 55 C.
Hazardous wastes that meet these criteria are given a D002 waste code.

A solid waste that exhibits any of the following properties is considered hazardous due to its reactivity (40 CFR 261.23):

  1. Normally unstable and reacts violently without detonating;
  2. Reacts violently with water;
  3. Forms an explosive mixture with water;
  4. Generates toxic gases when mixed with water;
  5. Contains cyanide or sulfide and generates toxic gases at pH's between 2 and 12.5; and
  6. Capable of detonation.
Hazardous wastes that meet these criteria are given a D003 waste code.

The toxicity characteristic is based on the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) test. This test is designed to simulate leaching action that can occur in landfills. The extract of this procedure is tested to determine if any of the contaminants are in concentrations greater than listed in Table 1 (40 CFR 261.24). For example, if the extract from a TCLP contained a concentration of arsenic greater than 5.0 mg/l, then that waste is hazardous. For this example, this waste would have a D004 waste code.

As a matter of policy and in guidance documents, EPA allows the generator the option of using either testing or process knowledge to determine if a waste is hazardous based on characteristics. This allows the generator to declare a particular waste stream as hazardous without the cost of testing.

The second way a solid waste can become a hazardous waste is to be included on one of three lists of hazardous waste:

  1. Non-specific source wastes (40 CFR 261.31). These are generic wastes commonly produced in manufacturing processes. All wastes in this list have an "F" prefix. One example is F001, spent halogenated solvents used in degreasing.
  2. Specific source wastes (40 CFR 216.32). This list of consists of wastes from specifically identified industries such as wood preserving, petroleum refining, etc. All wastes in this list have a "K" prefix. One example is K001, bottom sediment sludge from the treatment of waste waters from wood preserving processes that use creosote and/or pentachlorophenol.
  3. Commercial chemical products (40 CFR 261.33). This section contains two lists of discarded commercial chemical products, off-specification products, container residues and spill residues. These two lists have "P" and "U" prefixes.
Since RCRA is a cradle-to-grave statute, once a waste is labeled hazardous, it is difficult to remove that designation. There are currently two methods of removing that label. If the waste is a characteristic waste, then the removal of the characteristic allows the waste to exit the hazardous waste system. Because of the "mixture rule," dilution cannot be used to remove the characteristic. The "derived from" rule also forces residue from treatment methods (e.g., ash from the incineration of hazardous waste) to continue to be treated as hazardous waste. Listed hazardous wastes and products from treatment procedures can be removed from Subtitle C by a de-listing process. This process requires that the company prove the material is non-hazardous and petition EPA to de-list that material. This is done on a case-by-case basis.


The generator is the first link in the cradle-to-grave chain of hazardous waste management. Subtitle C requires generators to ensure and fully document the hazardous waste they produce is identified and transported to a RCRA treatment, storage, or disposal facility (TSDF). The TSDF can be either on- or off-site. The Subtitle C regulations define "generator" to include any facility owner or operator who first creates a hazardous waste or the person who first makes the waste subject to Subtitle C regulations.

Under RCRA, there are three categories of hazardous waste generators:

  1. Large quantity generators;
  2. Small quantity generators; or
  3. Conditionally exempt small quantity generators.
Large quantity generators are defined as a facility that generates:
  • over 1,000 kg per month of hazardous waste; or
  • over 1 kg per month of acutely hazardous waste.
Small quantity generators is defined as a facility that generates:
  • Greater than 100 kg but less that 1,000 kg per month of hazardous waste;
  • Accumulates less than 6,000 kg at any one time; or
  • Generates and accumulates less than 1 kg of acutely hazardous waste.
If a facility generates less than 100 kg per month of hazardous waste and less than 1 kg per month of acutely hazardous waste, then that generator is conditionally exempted from most of the requirements of Subtitle C. However, this category still has to identify the waste, accumulate less that 1,000 kg at any one time, and treat or dispose of the material on-site or ensure the waste is sent to a permitted TSDF.

Large and small quantity generators are subject to the regulations in 40 CFR 262 requiring them to:

  • Obtain an EPA ID number;
  • Prepare the waste for transportation;
  • Follow accumulation and storage requirements;
  • Manifesting of hazardous waste; and
  • Recordkeeping and reporting requirements.
A generator can choose to treat the hazardous waste on-site. The decision to treat on-site or to ship off-site to another TSDF is based on economics (cost of transportation and treatment vs. cost of treatment), regulations (willingness to obtain a TSDF permit which includes corrective action and site closure plans) and long-term liability (Superfund). The process of obtaining a TSDF permit will be discussed later.


Transport (40 CFR 263) is the second link in the cradle-to-grave chain of hazardous waste management. If the facility chooses to transport the hazardous waste to an off-site TSDF for treatment and/or disposal, the generator has to create a manifest. This manifest is used by EPA to track the movement of the hazardous waste from the point of generation to the point of ultimate treatment or disposal. RCRA manifests contain:

  • The name and EPA ID number of the generator, the transporter and the TSDF;
  • The Department of Transportation (DOT) description of the waste being transported;
  • The quantity of waste being transported;
  • The address of the designated facility;
  • A certification that the generator has a waste minimization program in place;
  • The treatment, storage, or disposal method chosen as the most practical method available; and
  • The waste meets land ban disposal restrictions or a description of the treatment methods that will meet land ban disposal restrictions.
To be a hazardous waste transporter, the company has to:
  • Obtain an EPA ID number;
  • Comply with the manifesting system;
  • Comply with all EPA and DOT regulations; and
  • Develop spill response plans.
In addition to meeting federal requirements, each transporter has to meet the state requirements for all states they traveled through.

Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facilities

Treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDF) are the last link in the cradle-to-grave hazardous waste management system. Subtitle C requires that all TSDF's obtain an operating permit and abide by the regulations. These regulations establish design and operating criteria as well as performance standards that owners and operators must meet to protect human health and the environment. The definition of a TSDF (40 CFR 260.10) encompasses three functions:

  1. Treatment. 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 it, or render it non-hazardous or less hazardous, or to recover it, make it safer to transport, store of dispose of, or amenable for recovery, storage, or volume reduction;
  2. Storage. The holding of hazardous waste for a temporary period, at the end of which the hazardous waste is treated, disposed, or stored elsewhere; and
  3. Disposal. The discharge, deposit, injection, dumping, spilling, leaking, or placing of any solid waste into or on any land or water so that the waste or any constituent thereof may enter the environment or be emitted into the air or discharged into any water, including ground waters.
All owners or operators of facilities that treat, store or dispose of hazardous waste are subject to these regulations except:
  • A farmer disposing of pesticides from his own use;
  • The owner or operator of a totally enclosed treatment facility;
  • The owner or operator of an elementary neutralization unit or a waste water treatment unit;
  • A person cleaning up a hazardous waste spill or discharge;
  • Facilities that reuse, recycle, or reclaim hazardous waste (except production, distributing or burning of hazardous waste-derived fuels and used oil recyclers); and
  • A transporter storing manifested shipments for less than ten days.
All other owners or operators of TSDF are required to meet general facility standards as well as specific standards for the type of treatment or disposal methods used. The general standards (40 CFR 264, Subpart A) include:
  • Obtaining a permit (40 CFR 270);
  • Developing and implementing a waste analysis plan (WAP) to ensure that the waste is treated, stored or disposed of in a manner that will not pose a threat to human health and the environment;
  • Install security measures to prevent the unknowing entry of people or animals;
  • Develop and follow a written inspection schedule to assess the status of the facility and detect potential problem areas;
  • Conduct training of employees to reduce the potential for mistakes that could threaten human health and the environment;
  • Properly manage ignitable, reactive or incompatible wastes;
  • Comply with location standards;
  • Develop emergency preparedness plans;
  • Return the manifest to the generator with a certification of destruction or disposal and maintain records on releases, ground water monitoring, and closure;
  • Develop a ground water monitoring system if the method uses surface impoundments, landfills, or land treatment facilities; and
  • Develop closure and post-closure plans and financial assurances.
In addition to the general standards that all TSDF's must meet, each facility must meet specific standards for all waste management methods used as follows:
  • Containers (40 CFR 264, Subpart I);
  • Tanks (40 CFR 264, Subpart J);
  • Surface impoundments (40 CFR 264, Subpart K);
  • Waste piles (40 CFR 264, Subpart L);
  • Land treatment (40 CFR 264, Subpart M);
  • Landfills (40 CFR 264, Subpart N);
  • Incinerators (40 CFR 264, Subpart O);
  • Thermal treatment (40 CFR 264, Subpart P);
  • Chemical, physical, and biological treatment (40 CFR 264, Subpart Q); and
  • Underground injection (40 CFR 264, Subpart R).
Waste Hierarchy

As a matter of policy, EPA has established a hierarchy for handling hazardous waste. EPA believes that the best method for handling hazardous waste is to minimize the production of that hazardous waste. EPA encourages generators to find ways to change equipment or processes to minimize the generation of hazardous waste. One way EPA has encouraged this is to require that all releases to the environment be reported to EPA through the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). This data is complied and reported to the public. Public knowledge of the amount of pollutants released from a facility has been useful in reducing the amount of hazardous waste generated. The second step in the hierarchy is to recycle or reuse the waste materials. For the materials that can not be recycled or reused, the third step is treatment to remove or reduce the characteristic, reduce the volume, or stabilize the contaminants. The final step in the hierarchy is disposal in a secure landfill or injection into a stable aquifer where a no-migration determination has been made.

Land Disposal Restrictions

Land disposal restrictions are probably the most complicated part of RCRA (40 CFR 268). The Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984 (HSWA) included restrictions on the land disposal of untreated hazardous waste. HSWA requires that EPA develop treatment standards stipulating concentrations or levels of hazardous constituents that are considered as protective of human health and the environment. Treatment standards are expressed as either concentrations of hazardous constituents in the leachate as measured by TCLP or by a weight percentage. In addition to treatment standards, a particular treatment method is specified for a few wastes (e.g., incineration for halogenated organic compounds). To date, treatment standards for the following have been established:

  • Solvent wastes (40 CFR 268.30);
  • Dioxin-containing wastes (40 CFR 268.31);
  • California list wastes (40 CFR 268.32);
  • First third wastes (40 CFR 268.33);
  • Second third wastes (40 CFR 268.34);
  • Third third wastes (40 CFR 268.35); and
  • Newly listed wastes (40 CFR 268.36).
As mentioned earlier, the land ban treatment levels has to be included in the manifest.

Compliance Monitoring

The effective implementation of RCRA depends upon compliance with the regulations. The enforcement program seeks to ensure that regulatory provisions of RCRA are met and to compel necessary corrective action. The two aspects of the program are compliance monitoring and enforcement actions. Most enforcement actions are statutory, not regulatory. It should be noted that state requirements may be more stringent than federal requirements.

The first phase of enforcement is monitoring to verify that facilities comply with RCRA regulatory requirements. The primary method of collecting compliance monitoring data is through inspections. Inspections may include a formal visit, a review of records, taking of samples, or observation of operations. State or Federal EPA officials conduct most inspections. HSWA requires that all TSDF's be inspected at least once every two years.

The second phase of the compliance monitoring program is taking enforcement action to bring units out of compliance back into compliance. The enforcement options are: administrative actions; civil actions; or criminal actions.

Administrative actions can be either informal or administrative orders. Informal actions can be as simple as a telephone call outlining a minor problem that needs to be fixed. An informal letter outlining problems is often called a "notice of violation" (NOV) or a "notice of deficiency" (NOD). These violations are normally solved by the owner/operator taking steps to correct the problem. If a more serious violation takes place or the owner/operator does not respond to a NOV, EPA can issue an administrative order. An administrative order imposes enforceable legal duties. Orders can be used to force a facility to comply with specific regulations, to take corrective action, to perform monitoring, testing, and analysis, or to address a threat to human health and the environment. An administrative order can be issued unilaterally by EPA or the state, or it can be issued as a consent order, which documents an agreement between the agency and the facility.

In addition to administrative cations, EPA can initiate civil actions. Civil actions are a formal lawsuit, filed in court, against a person or company who has failed to comply with statutory, regulatory, or administrative orders. Civil actions are generally employed in situations where repeated or significant violations can result in environmental harm. Civil penalties range from $5,000 to $25,000 per day per violation.

Seven acts are identified in Section 3008 of RCRA as subject to criminal action. The first six criminal acts carry penalties of up to $50,000 per day per violation or from two to five years in jail. These acts are:

  • Transporting waste to a non-permitted facility;
  • Treating, storing, or disposing of waste without a permit;
  • Making a false statement on a label, manifest, report, permit, or compliance document;
  • Failing to comply with recordkeeping and reporting requirements;
  • Transporting waste without a manifest; and
  • Exporting waste without the consent of the receiving country.
The seventh act is knowing transportation, treatment, storage, disposal, or exporting of any hazardous waste in a manner that places another person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury. This act carries a possible fine of $250,000 or 15 years in prison for an individual or up to $1,000,000 for corporations.

Current Pressures on the Hazardous Waste Industry in the United States

The pressures on the hazardous waste industry in the past, currently, and in the future will be how regulations are developed, the cost of treating and disposing of hazardous waste (economics), and societal.

Regulations. The land disposal restrictions have probably had the most effect on the hazardous waste industry in the last 10 years. These regulations forced a number of wastes to be treated before placing them on the land. The hazardous waste treatment industry was instrumental in getting this law passed and the subsequent regulations promulgated. This is one example of a regulation creating or sustaining the treatment industry. Without this regulation, many commercial treatment companies would not be in business or would be significantly smaller. On the other hand, requiring generators to submit data on releases to the environment (TRI reporting) and EPA's publishing of those releases has increased the pressure on generators to reduce the amount of waste generated. Other pending regulations that will effect hazardous waste management in the U.S. are HWIR and HWC MACT. The proposed hazardous waste identification rule (HWIR) is expanding the methods of removing materials from Subtitle C regulations. If this rule becomes final with significant amounts of waste being moved from Subtitle C to Subtitle D (industrial non-hazardous waste), the supply of hazardous waste to the treatment industry could be reduced. The hazardous waste combustor MACT (maximum achievable control technology) proposed rule (HWC MACT) will significantly tighten the standards for hazardous waste combustors and potentially increase the costs for disposal.

Economics. The hazardous waste industry is a cyclic industry, primarily because the largest supplier of produce, the chemical industry, is cyclic. The flow of materials to the hazardous waste industry depends heavily on the economic health of generators. Another significant economic factor is the treatment capacity. Innovative technologies also influence industry capacity. Perhaps the best way to illustrate these points is with an example.

The hazardous waste incineration industry in the 1980's was characterized by few permitted incinerators (low capacity) and high supply. The supply of hazardous waste was fueled by the implementation of land ban restrictions and the fear of unlimited liabilities under Superfund. Generators did not fully understand Superfund or the land ban restrictions. In an effort to avoid regulatory or unlimited labilities, many plant managers elected to send their hazardous wastes to incineration to avoid these problems. The end product of incineration is a certificate of destruction that terminates the generator's responsibility for that waste. As a result, there was little capacity and a high supply, driving prices up (up to $2,000 per ton). As time passed, several factors combined to alter this. Companies looked at the high profit margins for hazardous waste combustion and started building and permitting more units. Cement and lightweight aggregate kilns began substituting high BTU fuels for coal. Generators learned more about land disposal restrictions and Superfund liabilities. These, combined with TRI reporting and the need to reduce production costs, forced companies to use techniques to reduce the amount of waste produced. As a result, prices fell. These forces have produced the current situation where there is over capacity and low prices ($150 per ton). This has resulted in poor economic health for a number of hazardous waste incineration companies, idling of hazardous waste incinerators, and cement kilns exiting the market. The supply of materials will continue to fluctuate based on the health of industry in general. However, TRI reporting requirements and cost will continue to moderate any expansion of supply of hazardous wastes.

Society. Probably the single most important societal effect has been as a result of TRI reporting. Now that the public knows how much pollution is released by each facility, there is significant public pressure to reduce that amount. NIMBY (not in my back yard) has made it extremely difficult to build new TSDF's or to expand old units. It also makes it increasingly difficult for existing facilities to renew permits. Certain activist groups, both international and local, have specific agendas that make it harder for the hazardous waste industry to continue to function. There appears to be the belief that stopping the entire production of hazardous waste is possible.


Finally, what does the future hold for the hazardous waste industry in the United States? The three current driving forces, regulation, economics and society, should remain as drivers. However, there could be some changes in these methods. Industry and EPA are currently looking at changing the current "command and control" regulatory structure into a system based on rewards for the "good actors" (incentives to reduce the amount of waste released into the environment) and punishment for the "bad actors." Whether this idea can survive in the current political climate is anyone's guess.

Pertaining to economics, capacity should continue to decrease and the supply will depend on the general health of the economy. However, the supply growth will be slower than it was in the past due to cost and TRI reporting pressures. Innovative technologies may play a significant role in the near future. There are large amounts of money chasing innovative solutions to hazardous waste problems as evidenced by the ability of certain companies to raise venture capital.

There is no reason to believe that future societal pressures will change from current levels.

Thus, if capacity continues to decrease and the economy continues to grow, the hazardous waste management industry in the United States should stabilize in the near future.

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