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Use these 10 tips to tune up your RCRA compliance


December 1, 2009

EPA settlement with the VA

As we first noted in November’s “Tip of the month,” the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) actions as part of a $533,570 hospital settlement should give all safety committees a reason to review hazardous waste concerns.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Eastern Kansas Health Care System settled with the EPA over violations to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) allegedly found at Dwight D. Eisenhower Veterans Medical Center in Leavenworth, KS, and Colmery O’Neil Veterans Medical Center in Topeka, KS.

Civil fines totaled $51,501. On top of that, the VA agreed to invest nearly $482,069 for new systems to better track and manage chemical wastes in the two hospitals.

The EPA inspection was not triggered by a complaint or accident. Instead, the regional EPA office had identified hospitals as potentially vulnerable to RCRA violations and devoted resources to inspecting facilities randomly.

Some of the alleged violations included no-nos such as incinerating hazardous materials on-site, says Ed Buckner, compliance officer in the RCRA enforcement branch at the EPA’s Region 7 office.

Even though many hospitals probably know better than to incinerate on-site, Buckner says, they still could be vulnerable to similar fines because they don’t know exactly what is hazardous and what isn’t—and how to store and transport hazardous materials properly once they’re identified.

“These are violations we see a lot in hospitals, colleges, any kind of facility that has a lot of people doing a lot of different stuff,” Buckner says. “[The VA facilities] are not unique.”

At presstime in mid-October, the VA’s national headquarters in Washington declined any comment on the record for this article.

Watch your quantity threshold

The main trigger of RCRA is the quantity of waste, say Buckner and colleague Belinda Holmes, senior counsel for the EPA’s Region 7 office.

Here’s a quick refresher: If your facility generates less than 100 kg of RCRA-covered waste in a month, you’re not required to comply with the law. If you have 100–1,000 kg each month, you’re a small-quantity generator. Above 1,000 kg a month, you are a large-quantity generator and subject to more stringent requirements.

Inventorying and reducing your RCRA-covered solid waste can be more than just an environmental gain. If you’re a large-quantity generator but can later get under 1,000 kg per month, that will reduce your facility’s regulatory burden.

The EPA classified the VA hospitals in question as large-quantity waste generators under RCRA, subjecting them to the most stringent rules. RCRA considers solid waste to be discarded material, including solid, liquid, semisolid, or contained gaseous material, resulting from industrial and commercial activities.

Take this advice from the EPA

Buckner offers 10 tips to help you stay ahead of RCRA problems:

  • Do a hazardous waste determination for all solid wastes. The main problem with the Kansas VA hospitals’ handling of wastes was that they didn’t know what was hazardous material under RCRA, Buckner says. Hazardous wastes require special handling and transport. If you don’t know what’s hazardous in your building and covered under RCRA, you may be racking up fines without knowing it.
  • Make certain to ship hazardous wastes using a qualified transporter. Not just anyone can haul away hazardous wastes. Make sure your hauler has a federal ID number.
  • Do not collect chemicals in storerooms and laboratories. Do you know what’s been forgotten about on shelves in the landscaping shed? Labs—especially those connected to universities—are also vulnerable to storing chemicals past their allowed RCRA time frame, usually 90 or 180 days depending on facility size. Abandoning or ignoring stored chemicals past that period is a way of creating waste. Containers of waste oil and gasoline, old batteries in the maintenance sheds, and fluorescent bulbs may fall under RCRA.
  • Inventory all waste streams. Don’t forget to include items such as lead aprons, pharmaceuticals, and paints. Hazardous wastes lurk in many corners of the hospital, and missing the less-than-obvious ones may lead to RCRA violations.
  • Watch for acute hazardous wastes (P-listed). Small quantities of highly toxic chemicals on this RCRA list can turn you into what the regulation deems a large-quantity generator, and subject to more of the rules.
  • Manage containers of hazardous waste appropriately. Make sure containers are properly labeled, dated, and closed. Once a container is received (not opened), it’s considered to be in storage. Know when a chemical comes in, when the container is opened, and if the material falls under RCRA, confirm there’s a disposal plan within mandated time frames for that quantity of chemical.
  • Do not treat hazardous waste on-site. There are other methods of inappropriate self-treatment besides incineration. Examples include dumping chemicals down the drain, flushing them down the toilet, and evaporating them (such as consumers do with latex paint before disposing the cans). Get an idea of what your staff members’ practices are when it comes to getting rid of wastes and train them on proper methods.
  • Create a complete contingency plan. By law, staff members must be prepared and trained on what to do—notification of local authorities included—in the event of a spill or other emergency that would require a response.
  • Seek to reduce use of hazardous materials. It’s simple logic, but the less you use, the less vulnerable you are to RCRA violations. You might also be able to adjust your practices to move from large- to small-quantity generator status, depending on your facility size. Auditing your chemical use will likely present opportunities for less hazardous substitutes. Such environmental management systems can pay off in the form of lower energy bills and reduced chemical quantities.
  • Contact federal or state environmental agencies. Federal and state authorities understand RCRA well and are usually willing to offer compliance tips, answer questions, and even perform site visits in some cases. Hospitals may fear that seeking such advice from authorities will put them on an inspection hit list, but that isn’t the case, Buckner says. “We’re an enforcement-oriented agency, but we’re not going to suddenly turn around and inspect somebody because they’re asking questions in or- der to get into compliance,” he says. “We’ve already got our inspection plan set up for a year in advance.”

Common chemicals can lead to problems

Below are some of the materials that allegedly were improperly handled or disposed of by two hospitals within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Eastern Kansas Health Care System:

  • Ether
  • Ethyl acetate
  • Paint sludge
  • Sulfuric acid drain cleaner
  • Paint booth skimming
  • Waste or spent mineral spirits
  • Paint thinner containing mineral spirits
  • Spent aerosol cans

Source: Environmental Protection Agency.

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