Preparing for Inspection



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Q: We operate a medium-size manufacturing facility that includes captive metal finishing operations, and, as such, we are also a large-quantity hazardous waste generator. Our hazardous wastes include wastewater treatment sludge, waste alkaline cleaner and paint-related wastes.

Recently, I received a phone call from our regional state EPA office notifying me that our plant will undergo a hazardous waste generator inspection sometime within the next several months. I have looked over our hazardous waste procedures and recordkeeping, and they look OK. Do you have any additional advice for us regarding this impending inspection? S.W.


A: Based on more than 25 years of EPA hazardous waste inspections, there are four areas that inspectors usually focus on to decide if further investigation is warranted: recordkeeping, training, storage and housekeeping.

Recordkeeping includes not only obvious items like manifests but also inspection records, hazardous waste storage tank certifications, analysis of non-hazardous wastes, hazardous waste contingency plans and waste minimization plans. EPA regulations require initial and annual refresher training, so make sure appropriate employees are trained and records up to date.

Storage and housekeeping seem to be the biggest challenges for metal finishers, many of whom 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 still intact are used for “temporary” storage of solutions that are hoped to be “reused” in the future; since these are typically moved out of the way, they are soon forgotten.

According to USEPA’s hazardous waste regulations, materials in unlabeled or mislabeled containers and tanks can be “guilty until proven innocent” hazardous waste. Years ago, I was involved in a case in which an electroplating facility was accused by the state EPA of “illegal” storage of more than 200 drums of hazardous waste; after much hassle, testing, container consolidation and proper labeling, meetings, follow-up inspections, and legal consulting and fees, we were able to prove that there were only 12 drums of hazardous waste. The fine levied by the state EPA was small compared with 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’ safety and health. Every year there are numerous instances when workers are injured or killed because they mistakenly thought a container—either because it was unmarked or mislabeled—held a certain chemical when it did not, and when this chemical was mixed with another chemical, caused a violent reaction and/or emitted toxic fumes.

Here are some additional tips for your upcoming inspection: 


1) Be sure that all containers holding hazardous waste are labeled, at least minimally, “hazardous waste.” We recommend a more useful and complete description, such as “waste alkaline cleaner - hazardous waste;” alternatively, you can use the DOT hazardous waste label. Be sure that temporary containers, such as catch pans under wastewater treatment filter presses, are labeled.

2) Make sure every filled container has its generation date marked on the hazardous waste label.

3) Because of the chemicals used, spillage and fume exposure tend to degrade container and tank labeling over time; be sure all labels are legible.

4) If you find containers that are not quite empty, consolidate contents; even if it is a hazardous waste, it is still worthwhile to consolidate since disposal companies charge by the drum.

5) If you find empty containers and they are not “returnable with deposit” type containers, remove or deface their labels, rinse out into the appropriate wastewater treatment sump (example, cyanide, chrome, acid/alkali, etc.), and place them in a designated area for awaiting pickup for disposal or recycling.

6) For “old” chemicals that are no longer used, consider treating through your wastewater treatment system or use off-site treatment/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).

7) For chemicals in unlabeled, illegible or 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, hexavalent chrome, acid, or alkali (caustic) in order to determine proper treatment or disposal.

8) 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, 7/08” would be appropriate. The date is important, since EPA could consider “excessive” storage time “sham recycling” and declare the material waste.

9) If using drums for trash or non-hazardous waste storage, such as acid zinc plating solution filters, be sure the drum’s original labels are removed or defaced.

10) 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 the sanitary sewer.

11) Label containers of spent or waste oil as “USED OIL.”

12) Label containers of solvent-laden wipe rags as “Spent Rags for Recycling.”

13) Be sure that spent fluorescent lamps, mercury vapor lamps and metal halide lamps are stored in a designated area, within labeled and dated containers (corrugated boxes for shipping are OK), and that arrangements are made for recycling. 


Through good recordkeeping, training, storage practices and housekeeping, you will be able to confidently know how your hazardous materials are handled and convey this confidence to the hazardous waste inspector so as to maximize his/her trust in you.

He will then have more comfort in employing “regulatory discretion” with any compliance issues that may be discovered. I hope this helps.