Hazardous Waste Management

Taking the Confusion Out of ‘Closed Containers’

Notwithstanding the complexity inherent in the phrase closed container, managers must be confident that they understand what must be done with the hazwaste containers at their facilities to ensure that a state or federal inspector will have no doubt that the regulations are being met. Keep in mind that containers in which hazwastes are held are one of the most visible regulated elements under RCRA, and it is highly unlikely that a hazwaste inspection by even the most junior inspector will fail to zero in on potential violations.

There are a number of reasons the phrase closed container is problematic. For example, the federal regulations do not define the phrase. In this context, this means that the requirement is a performance standard. In other words, a level of environmental protection must be achieved, but the manner of achievement is not specified, at least not by the federal government. State governments that implement most RCRA provisions may be more specific than the federal regulations in defining a closed container. Therefore, what closed means may vary significantly from state to state and may be highly specific.

Another factor is whether the hazwaste is liquid or dry. Environmental agencies are more concerned about the risks posed by improperly closed containers with liquid hazwastes than they are with containers of dry hazwastes. Thus, an acceptable closure of a container with dry wastes may not suffice for liquid hazwastes.

Agencies have also focused most regulatory guidance on the 55-gallon drum, which is the most common receptacle for hazwaste. But there are many other types of containers—e.g., poly sacks, cardboard boxes with plastic liners, and stainless steel or plastic totes—and each is closed in a different way.

There has also been confusion about closure requirements in satellite accumulation areas (SAAs) and central accumulation areas (CAAs). An SAA is near the location where a hazwaste is generated. Containers in an SAA can accumulate up to a total of 55 gallons of hazwaste. Any amount of hazwaste totaling over 55 gallons, or acutely hazardous waste over 1 quart, for one or all the containers in an SAA must be moved within 3 days to a CAA for subsequent transport, usually to a permitted treatment, storage, and disposal facility (TSDF), or directly to a TSDF. Some requirements for SAAs are less stringent than those for CAAs—e.g., large quantity generators (LQGs) must control air emissions from volatile organic compound (VOC) wastes in CAAs but not in SAAs.

In addition, keep in mind that U.S. OSHA and the Department Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) also regulate containers holding certain hazwastes. For example, OSHA requires that containers of 55 gallons or more capacity containing flammable or toxic liquid must be surrounded by dikes or pans that enclose a volume equal to at least 35 percent of the total volume of the container.

As noted, under EPA’s RCRA program, there is no single set of correct approaches to properly closing a container with a hazwaste because some states follow the minimal EPA requirements while others exercise their option to be more stringent.

However, if you have doubts about whether you are complying with the applicable rules, you can begin to clear up your uncertainties by reviewing EPA guidance on the meaning of a closed container. Here are some key points and directions from a December 2009 memo that the head of EPA’s Materials Recovery and Waste Management Division wrote for EPA regional offices, state agencies, and industry.