Permission to Build? Why Well-Maintained Hazardous Waste Permits are Good for the Environment, Good for our Communities, and Good for Business
By Mathy Stanislaus
We all know this principle: that which is built, also must be maintained. This applies to the houses and buildings we live in, the bridges and roads we travel, and the infrastructure that provides us reliable electricity and clean water. And it also applies to the facilities that treat, store, and dispose of hazardous waste – including the operating conditions and requirements at manufacturing facilities that also manage hazardous waste (treatment, storage, or disposal facilities). These requirements are maintained in their hazardous waste permits.
Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), facilities that treat, store, and dispose of hazardous waste must obtain a hazardous waste permit in order to ensure safe management of those wastes (i.e., ensuring tanks have secondary containment and will not leak). RCRA regulations for general permitting standards have been in place for over 30 years, and the majority of hazardous waste facilities have been properly permitted by their state or EPA regulating authority. However, as our new Permit Modification Report describes, the initial permit tells only the beginning of the story of a RCRA permit.
Now that most of these facilities already have their initial permits, the bulk of RCRA hazardous waste permitting activity has shifted to tasks that maintain and modify these permits. Permit modifications enable improved operational efficiency, economic development, and environmental protection at hazardous waste facilities. Throughout the modification process, effective and meaningful public participation keeps the local community abreast of ongoing changes at the facility. Public participation also helps inform facility managers, as well as the regulating agency, of public concerns.
Permittees request changes to their permits to keep pace with evolving business practices, technology, cleanup decisions, and regulations. Timely permit modifications ensure that these changes maintain protection of human health and the environment. These modifications can help with the cleanup of contaminated soil or groundwater, increase recycling, reuse and sustainable materials management, reduce corresponding waste streams, minimize fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions and have economic benefits for the facility. At the same time, companies can keep pace with changes in the market place and bolster their competitiveness.
The 1,429 facilities permitted under RCRA and identified in the Permit Modification Report employ approximately 100,000 people and generate close to $400 billion in annual revenue. On average, states approve approximately 800 RCRA permit modifications annually. Details on that estimate are in our Permit Modification Report.
There is a wide variability on how many permit modifications a single facility will require, but, if evenly distributed, these facilities need changes to the permit on average about every 18 months, with the more active facilities requesting multiple changes in a single year. This important segment of the economy stands to benefit from responsive permitting programs that can address changes (modifications and renewals) in a timely manner while ensuring those changes are protective of the environment. In order for the permitting programs to remain responsive to modification requests, the state programs need adequate and available resources and staffing.
The public participation aspect of the permit modification process allows communities to be informed and involved, and it ensures that the regulating agency can consider and address local concerns—especially environmental justice concerns. We recommend expanded public participation efforts, such as the use of social media that goes beyond regulatory requirements. For example, greater public outreach may be needed for changes to permits that involve potential off-site impacts to the community, such as air emissions or cleanup of releases that may have migrated off-site. Greater outreach may be warranted when the facility is located in disadvantaged neighborhoods or when the facility is clustered near other industrial facilities and may add to cumulative impacts to adjacent communities. One report from 2007 found that neighborhoods surrounding hazardous waste facilities are 56% people of color compared to 30% people of color in neighborhoods without hazardous waste facilities. Additionally, the report found that poverty rates in neighborhoods with hazardous waste facilities are 1.5 times greater than neighborhoods without hazardous waste facilities.
We have information currently available on our website regarding expanded public participation, and we are updating our RCRA Public Participation Manual to provide further guidance. We will post the draft updated public participation manual for public review, and we will provide notice through our mailing lists. I encourage you—regulators, facilities, and citizens alike—to learn more about the Permit Modification Report and the hazardous waste permitting process. After all, well-maintained hazardous waste permits serve everyone’s need for economic and environmental well-being in the areas we call home.