Hazmat: Compliance Considerations
National efforts to enforce environmental protection laws are prompting managers to rethink processes for handling, storing and disposing of hazardous materials
In the late 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took its first real steps into health care, college and university facilities. What they found were organizations that had operated largely outside the EPA’s main arena of activity for many years, manufacturing operations.
The fallout from the campaign for maintenance and engineering departments has been substantial, especially in the Eastern United States — EPA’s regions 1, 2 and 3 — where most of the activity has taken place. EPA inspections are more common, and compliance resources and workshops have multiplied. Managers — more environmentally aware than ever due to the green movement in facilities — are looking at their processes and operations more closely. As the EPA’s efforts continue, they are searching for more effective compliance strategies.
Targeting a Hazard
Prior to the EPA’s campaign to increase compliance among these facilities, few managers gave serious thought to how their operations might have been affecting the environment.
“Health care had flown under the radar for regulatory compliance for a really long time,” says Laura Brannen, executive director of Hospitals for a Healthy Environment. (H2E) “I’m told it was a pretty exciting for inspectors to go into health care facilities then because there were so many problems.” The EPA soon partnered with H2E and others to establish more formal inspection and audit programs for health care.
At about the same time, responding to their findings in health care facilities, EPA began taking a closer look at university-based and -affiliated laboratories and research facilities, which in turn led to inspections of all operations within higher education.
Finally, in 2003, the EPA established a sector for colleges and universities to focus more attention on the issue of environmental compliance in these facilities. In both health care and higher education, the EPA has used both the threat of heavy fines and the incentive of lower fines for voluntary participation.
Many colleges and universities have taken the EPA’s cue. For example, in Region 2, 129 higher education organizations have voluntarily come forward to disclose more than 1,600 violations to the EPA. Most have been granted a 100-percent waiver of some penalties, totaling more than $21 million. Institutions that opted not to voluntarily report were targeted for inspections. To date, inspectors have done 71 inspections, issued 25 penalty actions and assessed $3.8 million.
Barriers to Compliance
Despite the EPA’s efforts to both enforce the law and assist organizations in complying, some managers continue to struggle to improve their programs to manage hazardous materials properly.
“There is still a lot of opportunity for improvement of the process through knowledge and education,” Brannen says. “They are still trying to do it better.”
Numerous barriers to better management exist, and Brannen has heard them all from meetings and workshops.
Among the most common barrier is that organizations still have not made hazardous materials management a formal part of their organizational chart, Brannen says.
“Until they create the position, the management of hazardous materials remains very decentralized,” she says and, as a result, inefficient.
Finances, of course, are a roadblock in many organizations.
“Money is the most typical response” when managers discuss proper management of hazardous materials, she says. The related costs for proper equipment and employee training, among other items, are too rarely part of budgets.
Brannen advises managers to look at the issue another way. Such expenditures are ”part of the cost of having these materials in your buildings. You don’t have a choice.”
Fines and Revisions
Nearly eight years after the EPA’s initial efforts, it continues to expand and refine its programs to increase compliance. While numerous organizations have joined the self-audit program, others have chosen not to, and the EPA continues to conduct inspections and conduct fines. For example:
Earlier this month, the EPA fined five Arizona charter schools a total of $49,200 for various asbestos violations. Three of the schools were fined for failing to inspect for asbestos-containing materials and for failing to have a management plan.
In September, the EPA cited the University of Cincinnati for alleged clean-air violations at its power plant. According to the agency, in 2004 and 2005, data from monitors on boilers and turbines show that the amount of light obscured by smoke, dust, and ash emissions far exceeded legal limits, as well as operating and construction permits.
The EPA also continues to tighten various aspects of both environmental regulations and their implementation. Most recently, the agency revised the Uniform Hazardous Waste Manifest regulations and the manifest and continuation sheet forms used to track hazardous waste. The revisions will:
standardize the content and appearance of the manifest form
make the forms available from a greater number of sources
adopt new procedures for tracking certain waste shipments. These types of shipments include hazardous wastes that destination facilities reject, wastes consisting of residues from non-empty hazardous waste containers, and wastes entering or leaving the United States.
After Sept. 5, 2006, only the new manifest form and requirements established under the final rule will be valid. For more information, visit www.epa.gov/epaoswer/hazwaste/gener/manifest/.
For managers hoping the EPA’s efforts might abate soon, Brannen offers this statistic to suggest otherwise: An EPA inspection in general industry is likely to turn up a significant problem once very 30 times. The rate for health care facilities is once every two inspections. In short, institutional and commercial facilities remain fertile ground for environmental-protection violations.
Hazmat Trouble Spots
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 2 has been among the most active in recent years in inspecting health care facilities for violations of hazardous waste laws. What have inspectors found? Among the most common violations are these.
- Improper or a lack of hazardous waste
No or improper weekly inspections of hazardous waste storage and satellite sites
Open containers of hazardous waste
Improper disposal of chemotherapy drugs
Failure to perform or improper hazardous waste determinations
No or inadequate hazardous waste manifests
Improper management of mercury-containing wastes, expired pharmaceuticals, paints, etc.
Lack of a contingency plan.
- Failure to use properly trained and accredited asbestos personnel
Failure to notify EPA of asbestos removal projects and to keep required records
Failure to properly dispose of asbestos debris.
- No permit for or noncompliance with wastewater discharges
No or inadequate secondary containment for storage tanks
Improper disposal down floor drains.