EPA Plans Hazwastes Permit Standard

A four-year effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reform hazardous waste recycling rules apparently has yielded nothing more than a speedier process for permitting storage of on-site hazardous waste.

In 1994, the agency was roundly criticized for its draft recommendations on revising the definition of "solid waste." The controversial proposals were based on the report of an advisory committee that had worked for a year. Stymied, EPA ended up abandoning the panel's work.

Two years later, EPA developed yet another plan to revise the definition. The blueprint contained two alternatives: a "transfer-based" option and an "in-commerce" option.

The first would have limited the exemption from RCRA regulations to recycling hazardous waste at on-site facilities, keeping off-site recycling fully covered. The business community opposed the "transfer-based" option because, among other things, it would have regulated already-exempt secondary materials that were transported to independent recyclers.

Meanwhile, state environmental officials and several environmental organizations opposed the "in-commerce" option because it called for EPA's abandoning control of materials that, as the opponents saw it, needed federal coverage. More sweeping than the "transfer-based" option, the second alternative would have treated all hazardous waste recycling as part of the production process, and, thus, exempt from RCRA rules.

Lacking broad support for either option, the agency announced in October that it was dumping the 1996 plan. EPA's action came in a letter to business and environmental groups and state officials.

A formal regulatory proposal probably would have failed. Neither option had adequate supporting data, an unidentified EPA staff member conceded. Consequently, the agency has undertaken an extended data-gathering effort to study the potential risks associated with exempt secondary materials.

Twice bitten and now shy, the agency has decided to forsake broad changes in favor of a "three-part strategy" for gradual change, according to EPA's Office of Solid Waste. First, the agency plans to proceed with a rule to ease permitting for low-risk hazardous waste storage facilities. Next, EPA will gather data on risks associated with now-exempt secondary materials. Finally, it will consider again certain previously supported exemptions from RCRA regulations.

The regulated community can expect to see a formal EPA proposal later this year for a standardized permit applicable to all on-site hazardous waste storage - in tanks, containers and buildings. A standardized permit was a feature of the otherwise discarded "transfer-based" option. The proposal is meant to save time and money for business and to ease burdens on permit officials.

Today, applicants for new permits for treatment, storage and disposal facilities can expect to wait up to four years. EPA is hopeful that a standardized permit can shorten the waiting time to a breezy six months.

As the agency now sees it, a streamlined permit process would begin with the permit applicant holding a public meeting to provide information and answer questions about the proposed waste handling activities. Following the meeting, the applicant would file a notice of intent to be covered by a general permit, furnishing information on the public meeting and the nature and amount of waste to be handled, proposed management practices, and assurances of compliance with applicable standards.

For its part, the permitting agency - EPA or an approved state - then would decide if the facility met the general permit's requirements. If environmental officials decided to issue the permit, with or without site-specific conditions, the agency would issue public notice of the forthcoming permit and would solicit public comments. Final issuance (or denial) of the permit would follow.

Although facilities covered by the revised process still would be held to current technical standards, permitees would retain reports and records on-site and no longer mail them to the permitting agency. The current exemption for on-site storage lasting less than 90 days would not be changed.

As EPA now envisions the standardized permit, it would apply to new storage permits and to modification of existing permits. Storage facilities with a current permit whose request for revocation were granted, would be eligible for a general permit.

Currently, EPA is considering, and may propose, a number of small, but widely supported changes, in recycling regulations. These changes may include: exempting secondary materials returned to the manufacturer; developing special rules for secondary materials that resemble commodities; improving the variance request process; and defining the elements of bona fide recycling.