Hazardous Waste:

EPA Needs to Clarify the Types of Mercury Waste That Can Be Treated and Disposed of Using the Debris Regulations

GAO-06-99: Published: Dec 16, 2005. Publicly Released: Jan 17, 2006.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for regulating hazardous wastes (such as mercury) under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Under RCRA, mercury-containing hazardous waste must meet specific treatment standards before land disposal. But, certain difficult to manage waste due, in part, to its large particle size, can follow alternate "debris" standards that provide diverse treatment options. This report examines (1) the mechanisms that EPA uses to track the treatment and disposal of mercury-contaminated debris and the quantity of this waste, (2) the extent to which EPA, states, and industry share a common understanding of the types of mercury-containing wastes that can be treated and disposed of as debris, and (3) EPA and state controls that are in place to monitor compliance with EPA's treatment and disposal requirements for mercury-contaminated debris.

EPA uses its RCRAInfo database to maintain information on all hazardous waste, including mercury-contaminated debris. EPA reported that in 2003, mercury-contaminated debris constituted about 12,000 metric tons--or about 0.4 percent of all mercury-containing waste and about 0.03 percent of all hazardous waste. However, EPA's data on mercury-contaminated debris may be incomplete. Reporting on the physical form of the waste (debris is one of many physical forms) is optional, and businesses did not submit this optional information in about 9 percent of instances when they reported treating and disposing of mercury-containing waste in 2003. In addition, EPA's reporting category for debris does not provide a complete list of items that EPA considers to be debris, and debris can be reported in other categories. The 48 states and the District of Columbia and the 14 commercial hazardous waste landfill operators that responded to our survey do not share a common understanding of the types of mercury-containing waste that EPA allows to be treated and disposed of as debris. For example, in their responses, officials in 21 states and operators of 6 commercial hazardous waste landfills identified as debris waste that is explicitly not debris, such as intact devices containing mercury, and may have used the debris regulations for such waste. Consequently, EPA cannot be certain that businesses are appropriately managing their mercury-containing waste as debris. EPA's mandatory waste tracking and documentation requirements serve as controls to monitor compliance with EPA's treatment and disposal requirements for mercury-contaminated debris. EPA and state oversight inspections and enforcement programs provide additional compliance monitoring with the alternative treatment standards for debris.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better ensure that the businesses that generate, treat, and dispose of hazardous waste are properly managing and reducing the risk of their mercury-containing waste, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should clarify and better describe the types of waste that can and cannot be reported under the "debris" reporting category and include the definition of debris in the instructions for the Hazardous Waste Report.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has implemented this recommendation. EPA clarified the definition for contaminated debris in the Hazardous Waste Report instructions for the hazardous waste reporting cycle that followed the issuance of this report. The definition for contaminated debris now now references the regulatory debris definition found at 40 CFR 268.2(g) and the treatment requirements found at 40 CFR 268.45.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that the businesses that generate, treat, and dispose of hazardous waste are properly managing and reducing the risk of their mercury-containing waste, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should conduct further outreach to communicate to states and hazardous waste landfills the types of mercury-containing wastes that can be treated and disposed of according to the alternative treatment standards for debris.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has implemented this recommendation. In May and August 2006, EPA conducted outreach to states through the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials. EPA conducted a similar outreach to hazardous waste landfill operators in May and September 2006. EPA also conducted outreach on its Safe Mercury Management website by providing a link to its mercury-containing debris memo.

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