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RCRA 101 Part 14: What Is Considered Hazardous Waste Treatment?

Treating hazardous waste without an EPA permit.

Editor’s Note: Welcome to part 14 in our series about the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). During this series, we’ll guide you through proper hazardous waste handling so you stay compliant and safe.

Generally, hazardous waste treatment requires a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but there are exceptions that allow some facilities to alter hazardous waste to improve safe handling or to minimize their liability and costs related to storage, shipping and disposal.

These exceptions are helpful to sites that handle hazardous waste for less time and in smaller quantities than Treatment, Storage and Disposal Facilities (TSDF). A TSDF receives permits specific to the waste treatment techniques that it employs to eliminate or decrease the hazards or increase stability before disposal. Without such permits, a generator may not treat its hazardous waste. Moreover, the following language excludes common industrial activities that can be construed as treatment:

Treatment means any method, technique, or process, including neutralization, designed to change the physical, chemical, or biological character or composition of any hazardous waste so as to neutralize such waste, or so as to recover energy or material resources from the waste, or so as to render such waste non-hazardous, or less hazardous; safer to transport, store, or dispose of; or amenable for recovery, amenable for storage, or reduced in volume. [40 CFR 260.10]

However, other sections of the regulation create exceptions for some forms of treatment performed within the guidelines provided. These include:

Treating waste in containers or tanks

Generators may treat wastes in containers or tanks that meet applicable TSDF standards. Examples of requirements related to a container or tank are that it must be closed except when waste is being added or removed, and its integrity must not be compromised by any treatment process.

Adding absorbents

Absorbent materials may be added before or when hazardous waste first starts to accumulate in a container [40 CFR 270.1(d)(viii)]. In some instances, this will cause hazardous wastes with corrosive or ignitability characteristics to lose that characteristic.

Treating waste in totally enclosed units

Units such as stills, pipes, pressure vessels, distillation columns or other equipment can be used to treat wastes if they are directly connected to an industrial process and are designed so that they will not leak or release hazardous wastes into the environment [40 CFR 260.10].

Using elementary neutralization units

Tanks, containers, vessels and even vehicles can be used to neutralize wastes that are hazardous solely because they exhibit the characteristic of corrosivity. The wastes must be in the elementary neutralization unit immediately upon generation and must be managed properly. After neutralization, the wastes may not have any other hazardous waste characteristic. If so, they must be managed accordingly. [40 CFR 270.1(c)(2)(v)]

Using wastewater treatment units

RCRA does not require permits for wastewater treatment units because these systems are governed under the Clean Water Act, which has its own permitting system.

Treating waste during incidental processing

Sludges, scrap metal, spent materials and byproducts are all examples of secondary materials that may be generated during manufacturing processes. If these materials can be treated for reuse in the same way that you would treat virgin materials before using them in a process, this is considered “incidental processing” and does not require a permit. [40 CFR 261.2(e)]

Treating waste within processing units

Materials that are still in processing units are not wastes. [40 CFR 261.4(c)] So if treatment within a processing unit lets a material exit as non-hazardous waste, it may be managed as such.

Taking advantage of these and other permissible treatment opportunities can help minimize the volume of hazardous waste managed at a facility. It can also help a site avoid sending some hazardous wastes offsite for costlier treatment.

Up next, learn how to ship haz waste with the proper packaging, labeling, marking, manifests and more to help ensure safe transportation.

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