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According to Environmental Protection, more than 200 million tons of hazardous waste are generated each year. Much of that hazardous waste is destroyed in permitted, regulated incinerators located throughout the U.S. These incinerators are heavily monitored and have robust emissions management systems in place. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers hazardous waste incineration to be the Best Demonstrated Available Technology (BDAT) for most organic hazardous waste because of how safely and effectively hazardous constituents are destroyed and waste is converted into ash, flue gas, and heat. Frequently, these facilities also have energy recovery systems that capture BTU value from the incinerated waste, resulting in peripheral benefits from the process.
Not only does burning hazardous waste destroy toxic organic constituents, but it also reduces the sheer volume of hazardous waste. Incinerators actually reduce the solid mass of the original waste by 80-85% and volume by 95-96%, decreasing the load placed on landfills while preventing potentially dangerous materials from leaching into the environment.
Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facilities (TSDFs)
Hazardous waste facilities that treat, store, and/or dispose of waste are known as Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facilities (TSDFs). Hazardous waste incinerators are regulated under EPA’s Clean Air Act (CAA) and Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA). These facilities must have a permit to construct and operate.
This permit authorizes the types and quantities of waste a TSDF can accept and the treatment, storage, and/or disposal activities that the facility may conduct. It also outlines operating conditions and recordkeeping procedures the TSDF must follow and regulates the emissions that result from the combustion process (e.g., organics, hydrogen chloride (HCl), particulate matter (PM), and fugitive emissions).
There are currently 22 TSDFs in the U.S. permitted to incinerate hazardous waste.
In December 2019, EPA published its National Capacity Assessment Report, which evaluates the nation’s long-term capacity for hazardous waste recovery, treatment, and landfilling and RCRA-permitted commercial TSDFs. According to this most recent Report, the U.S. has sufficient recovery, treatment, and disposal capacity for managing all hazardous waste generated through 2044.
Despite this analysis, however, consolidation and restructuring in the commercial hazardous waste industry has resulted in fewer RCRA-permitted energy recovery facilities, incinerators, and landfills. Additionally, new federal regulations, permit denials, statutory limits on landfills, changes in fire code requirements, allowed disposal methodologies for certain types of hazardous waste, and changing market conditions all have the potential to disrupt TSDF operations and capacity limits.
The continually changing hazardous waste market is creating a fair amount of uncertainty whether hazardous waste management capacity can actually meet demand. Implications of this are evident in the delays currently being experienced for disposal and incineration. Many Large Quantity Generators (LQGs) and Small Quantity Generators (SQGs) are experiencing a hazardous waste incineration slowdown firsthand right now. Most, if not all, of the permitted TSDF incinerator facilities are currently backlogged several months.
One waste management company KTL works with has received letters from five different incinerators stating they will not approve or accept incineration material for 60-90 days and, most likely, through the end of 2021. There is a backup of hundreds of loads of material to incinerate. Shutdowns and outages for maintenance and rebricking have caused some of these issues. Regulators retracting some storage permits has caused a glut of material in need of immediate processing, as well.
This is causing many fuel-blend/solvent-based incineration-destined waste streams to stack up. This presents great cause for concern for some businesses (i.e., LQGs) that may exceed the 90-day LQG storage limits, as set forth in the CAA. If the backlog worsens, SQGs with a 180-day limit for storing hazardous waste onsite (unless travel to dispose exceeds 200 miles) might also have reason for concern.
What You Can Do
If you are an LQG or SQG being adversely impacted by this backlog and reaching your storage limits, it is important to take the actions necessary to remove the risks of compliance penalties and fines. This starts with:
- Knowing what waste and volumes you have onsite.
- Being proactive. Do not wait to dispose of your waste and allow for plenty of time for scheduling issues. It will be easier to dispose of smaller amounts than larger quantities.
- Evaluating the different disposal alternatives (e.g., fuel blending) and making sure you have secondary disposal options.
- Documenting everything.
If you are in the situation where you are coming up against your time limits, contact your EPA Regional Administrator and ask for guidance on how to manage the situation. Considering writing a letter to the EPA Regional Administrator (ECAD/CB/RCRA) detailing hazardous waste management concerns:
- Include dates, quantities, and waste descriptions.
- Document correspondence with all incinerators you contact.
- Document all other disposal options considered and evaluated.
- Inform EPA of the ongoing plan for safe storage of hazardous waste during the lag in disposal options.
Facilities must keep very careful and accurate records of all hazardous waste information to demonstrate appropriate management. Once the waste is eventually shipped off site, facilities should once again notify the EPA Regional Administrator with details, especially if it takes more than 30 days.
KTL is actively engaged with EPA and having ongoing conversations with hazardous waste disposal vendors to assist our customers through this difficult challenge. The risk of penalty is great, and we are working diligently to provide guidance, support, and regulatory assistance to navigate this situation as safely and compliantly as possible.