TECHNOLOGY: Solid Waste Systems Vulnerable to Y2K Plague

The operating system of one recycling facility shuts down when the software program used to regulate temperature does not recognize the 366th day of a leap year. Causing a total of 660 solid waste process control computers to cease operating at the stroke of midnight, the system must be manually operated until the source of the problem is located. By this time, more than $1 million worth of equipment is damaged from overheating and needs to be replaced. This "leap year" failure demonstrates the similar types of problems that could occur if a computer program fails to recognize the year 2000 (Y2K).

Computer programs and microchips that fail to recognize the new year can wreak havoc on the waste industry if preventive steps are not taken. In fact, waste generators, treaters and recyclers are just as vulnerable to Y2K disruptions as banking, utilities and manufacturing systems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C.

On the other hand, recognizing potential Y2K problems and assessing their effects can ensure that your waste management system continues to protect human health and the environment into the next century.

To ready your operations, the EPA suggests you:

1. Identify a staff member or committee of staff members to spearhead an assessment. Your technical support staff are ideal candidates, as are employees who originally installed or implemented components of your system.

2. Inventory system components that are potentially vulnerable to Y2K disruption. Equipment may include automated process control systems, tracking software or monitoring equipment run by embedded computer chips. If your equipment was purchased or upgraded recently, it already may be Y2K compliant. But check with your supplier, installer or equipment manufacturer to be certain.

3. Prioritize the risks to your business of each potential threat. What are the financial and other costs if you don't correct the problem?

4. Repair, modify or replace each threatened item. Based on priorities you identified in step 3, begin a systematic process of correcting problem areas.

5. Test Y2K-amended items that are deemed critical to environmentally safe operations. If feasible, conduct your test as a simulation or on a very small scale to avoid major upsets of current operations, such as large releases of waste to the environment should the test fail.

6. Prepare a site contingency plan to anticipate and manage disruptions. Maintain hard copy plans for each automated system should a failure occur or install manual overrides of safety and environmental control systems. Look particularly at those problems you think have not been resolved.

Even though most waste management systems use monitoring and control systems that are not date related, it's important to take steps to maintain public confidence in your company and to avoid potential accidents. [See Y2K Checklist at left.]

You'll also want to consider the Y2K readiness of your business associates. Consider:

* The companies whose waste you manage (generators) or those who manage your waste;

* Vendors and suppliers (e.g. lab supplies, containers or computer software);

* Waste transporters (to and from the site);

* Loading and distribution systems (fleet management, route management collection and scales);

* External financial and insurance programs (e.g. financial assurance data);

* Communication providers; and

* Utilities systems (electricity, natural gas, water, sewage, grid stats, etc.).

In preparing itself for the new millennium, one waste treatment facility recently performed a five-site sample assessment that revealed date-sensitive equipment such as an incinerator's control systems, lab testing equipment, gas chromatographs, alarm systems and utilities. As a result of this finding, the facility instituted a combination of centralized program management and local site management to stop operations failures when the year 2000 arrives.

Remember, mission-critical systems can reach beyond the walls of your business. But assessing your and your associates' operations can ensure your business goes uninterrupted when the clock strikes 12.

For more information on how others are addressing their Y2K problems, visit websites by the EPA [www. or year2000]; U.S. Small Business Administration's Year 2000 Issues Hotlist [ html], which contains links to state and private websites on Y2K policies and issues; National Institute of Standards and Technology [], which contains the Manufacturing Extension Partnership's Year 2000 Compliance Self-Assessment Checklist; and the Year 2000 Information Center [www.].

You also can call the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) Hotline toll-free at (800) 424-9346.