Any enterprise intending to engage in hazardous waste “treatment” is required to obtain a treatment permit from the EPA, per the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
Bear in mind that the EPA deems almost any facet of hazardous waste management as an instance of “treatment,” including any effort to make a hazardous waste non-hazardous or less hazardous. But most pertinent to hazardous waste removal: the EPA also deems any effort on your part to reduce the volume of a hazardous waste (to facilitate its storage or transport) as an instance of treatment.
Nonetheless there are certain exceptions wherein a treatment permit is not necessary.
Proceed With Caution.
Recall that there is little you should attempt in the realm of hazardous waste disposal without getting expert advice about the need for an EPA treatment permit and its attendant requirements. Also, your state’s mandates might be more stringent than those of the EPA. (See: Are Environmental Regulations In Your State More Stringent Than Those Of The EPA?)
That said, per the EPA, hazardous waste can be treated in tanks, containers, or containment buildings without obtaining a treatment permit (or interim status) so long as you comply with a number of “unit-specific requirements” cited in EPA regulation §262.34, with particular references to Part 265 (51 FR 10146, 10168; March 24, 1986).
Among the nuances of this provision, you’re prohibited from treating hazardous waste by thermal treatment (or incineration) without obtaining the appropriate treatment permit; and you can only treat hazardous waste that you have generated onsite. If you opt to consolidate hazardous wastes generated from your other sites, you will need the appropriate EPA treatment permit, as transporting hazardous waste for consolidation would instigate rules regarding hazardous material removal.
So Exactly What Are Those Possible Exceptions?
With due regard to the caveats listed above, there are four specific activities that might not require your securing an EPA treatment permit:
- Adding absorbents
In the majority of cases, diluting a hazardous waste with another material in order to alter its hazardous “characteristics” is prohibited. E.g., adding solids to a liquid to neutralize its corrosivity and/or ignitability. However, the EPA authorizes the addition of absorbent materials (e.g. granular clay) so long as the absorbent is added to the container in advance of the hazardous waste—or at the earliest stages of its accumulation—not afterward. In any case, be advised that LDR treatment standards will still apply to such “de-characterized” wastes.
- Treatments while accumulating
In addition to adding absorbents, you can (without a treatment permit) use any recognized and approved technique to treat waste while accumulating it (e.g., compacting, filtering, or settling) so long as you comply with all applicable requirements: the tank or container must remain closed except while adding or removing waste; no thermal treatment can be employed that would compromise the integrity of the container or destabilize the contaminant; venting must be provided for any process that releases gas; etc.
- Incidental processing
Per the EPA, processing secondary substances such as sludge, incidental byproducts, spent materials, or scrap metal is technically “waste treatment” because it effectively changes their physical form to harvest value or expedite handling. However, the EPA has deemed such “incidental processing” to not be reclamation, and thereby not require a treatment permit. In sum, anything you would do to a virgin ingredient before using it is not considered reclamation when you do the same to a hazardous secondary material that you are using as its substitute.
- Disassembling equipment
In some cases the EPA authorizes universal waste handlers to disassemble discarded equipment, without a treatment permit, in order to remove isolate components that themselves might contain hazardous materials.
For example, cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are made of leaded glass and therefore exhibit the “characteristic” of lead toxicity. Removing a CRT from a discarded television or monitor changes the character of the waste—in this example the TV or monitor itself. The EPA authorizes such disassembly without a treatment permit because the actual target of the hazardous waste removal is the CRT itself, which (once removed) can be managed as hazardous waste.
Similarly, the EPA authorizes universal waste handlers to remove batteries from consumer products, disassemble battery packs, and perform other limited “treatments” because the targets of the hazardous waste removal are the batteries themselves. They can also remove mercury ampoules from thermostats, automotive switches, and electrical relays (or drain mercury from unsealed vessels) for subsequent hazardous waste management—but yet another caveat— there are specific mercury training & management requirements to do so.
EPA Rules Are a Moving Target—Albeit Slow
As the applicable regulations cited above were written over 30 years ago, it is no surprise that they have been amended over time. The EPA published the “Hazardous Waste Generator Improvements Final Rule” in 2016, which went into effect last May 30th.
However, implementation in your particular region depends on your state’s “authorization status,” which is incidentally explained in the article cited above. In fact, the EPA advises that it is best to contact your state environmental regulatory authority (or authorities)—not the EPA itself— to know how the new rule will be locally implemented.