On April 16, a Texas company and two of its executives pleaded guilty to violating hazardous waste laws. The company faces substantial fines and the executives face both fines and imprisonment. This case is not as rare as one might think. Improper handling and disposal of hazardous waste–including solvents, acids, poisons, heavy metals, some used oils, and numerous other substances used and generated by businesses–are frequently the subject of enforcement action and typically do lead to penalties. As illustrated by the Texas case, serious violations can also lead to criminal charges with heavy fines, imprisonment or both. When there is a release of hazardous waste into the environment, you can even be charged for the costs that government agencies or other private parties incur to clean it up. These costs can run into hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Here are some of the key points that should be on the spring cleaning list at your business:

  • Beware the 55-gallon drum. It's uncanny (no pun intended) how often a neglected or abandoned 55-gallon drum can be the source of a hazardous waste problem. If you have 55-gallon drums (or any kind of drum or tank) at your business, you should know what's inside and determine how it needs to be managed.
  • Know the rules. Federal and state laws specify when substances are considered "hazardous waste," the amount of hazardous waste that can be held by a particular business and how long hazardous waste can be held.
  • Use name tags. When hazardous waste is held on site, it must be in approved containers labeled "Hazardous Waste" with a description that clearly indentifies the contents.
  • Know where it's going. Federal and state laws require signed manifests for the transport and treatment or disposal of hazardous waste. Also, since you can be held liable for the cleanup costs when others mishandle your waste, make sure that you are dealing with reputable transporters and treatment and disposal facilities with good track records.
  • Lock it up. If you have not taken reasonable measures to secure your premises, you can be held liable for spills and dumping of hazardous wastes by vandals and other intruders.
  • Tune up your contracts. You may be responsible for improper disposal of hazardous waste by companies working for you under contract. Make sure that the contracts you have entered into for construction, maintenance and other services at your company require contractor compliance with federal and state hazardous waste laws.

This is by no means a complete list of everything you need to do to protect your business. There are different rules for handling different kinds of hazardous wastes. You need to know the rules that apply to your particular business and act accordingly. Leonard, Street and Deinard's environmental attorneys can help you determine the requirements that are applicable to your business and create a plan for compliance. We can also help you deal with federal and state regulators, respond to government enforcement orders and defend penalty actions.