EPA Inspections

Question: We are an electroplating job shop and as a large quantity generator of hazardous waste, we recently received a letter from our state EPA that its representative will be inspecting our facility sometime in the next six months.


We are an electroplating job shop and as a large quantity generator of hazardous waste, we recently received a letter from our state EPA that its representative will be inspecting our facility sometime in the next six months. I have reviewed our hazardous waste procedures and record keeping, and they look okay. Just wanted to see if you have any additional advice for us for this impending inspection. A.J.


Based upon our over 20 years of EPA hazardous waste inspections, there are four areas that inspectors usually focus on, first in order to decide if further investigation is warranted: record keeping including manifests & inspections, training and training records, labeling, and housekeeping. Labeling and housekeeping seem to be the biggest challenges for platers and metal finishers who are notorious for trying samples of new or different products or keeping chemicals that are no longer used “just in case” they are needed sometime in the future. As the years pass, the container labels become faded or defaced, leaving them illegible. Also, “empty” containers with original labels are used for “temporary” storage of solutions that will be “reused” in the future; since these are typically moved “out-of-the-way,” they soon become forgotten. Under U.S. EPA’s hazardous waste regulations, materials in unlabeled or mislabeled containers and tanks are “guilty until proven innocent” hazardous waste. Some years ago, I was involved in a case where a plater was accused of “illegal” storage of over 200 drums of hazardous waste; after much hassle, testing, container consolidation and labeling, meetings, follow-up inspections, and legal fees, we were able to prove that there were less than 12 drums of hazardous waste; the EPA fine was small compared to all the other costs.

Now is a great time to review your container handling and storage tank practices, not only because of potential EPA compliance issues, but also to safeguard your employees’ health and safety. I know of several instances where workers were injured because they thought an unmarked drum contained one type of “used” chemical, and when mixed with another caused either an “eruption” or toxic fumes.

Here are some tips for your upcoming inspection:

•Be sure all containers holding hazardous waste are labeled, at least minimally, “hazardous waste” although we recommend a more useful description such as “filter press cake —hazardous waste;” also, be sure temporary containers, such as catch pans under wastewater treatment filter presses, are labeled.
Make sure every filled container has its generation date marked on the hazardous waste label.
•Because of the chemicals used, spillage and exposure to fumes tend to degrade container and tank labeling over time; be sure all labels are legible.
•Go through all of your chemical containers and verify that labels can be read and that the container does indeed hold the labeled chemical.
•If you find near empty containers, consolidate contents; even if a hazardous waste, it is still worthwhile to consolidate since disposal companies charge by the drum.
•If you find empty containers, place them in a designated area; if they are not “returnable with deposit,” their labels must be removed or defaced, and they will need to be rinsed out into the appropriate wastewater treatment sump (example, cyanide, chrome, acid/alkali, etc.) for either disposal or recycling.
•For “old” chemicals that are no longer used, seriously consider treating through your wastewater treatment system or off-site disposal; also, some materials, such as brighteners, can be mixed with your treated wastewater and discharged to the sanitary sewer, but check the chemical’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) and other chemical references before doing so.
•For chemicals in unlabeled, illegible, and known falsely labeled containers, it takes some detective work and testing to determine the type of material; typically, we want to determine if it contains cyanide, hex chrome, acid, or alkali in order to determine treatment or disposal.
•If you have decided to store some used solution in tanks or drums for future use, be sure to label the container as such with date; for example, “used acid zinc solution, 8/03” would be appropriate; the date is important since “excessive” storage time could be considered “sham recycling” by EPA and the material declared a waste.
•If using drums for trash or non-hazardous waste (such as acid zinc plating filters) collection, be sure the drums’ original labels are removed or defaced.
•Consider implementing a policy that chemical suppliers must be willing to take back any unused chemical used in a trial unless you verify that the material can easily be treated by your wastewater system or directly discharged to sanitary sewer.

Through good labeling and housekeeping practices, you will be able to confidently know how your hazardous materials are handled and stored, and convey this confidence to the hazardous waste inspector so as to increase his/her trust in you. He or she will then have more comfort in employing “regulatory discretion” with any compliance issues that are discovered. Good luck. Let me know how the inspection goes.