When reviewing the United States Environmental Protection Agency's (USEPA) enforcement history, properly managing hazardous waste continues to be an area of great interest. A recent example occurred on August 5, 2002. Fifteen businesses and public entities in Downers Grove, Ill., were told, via a USEPA letter, that they might be at least partly liable for groundwater contamination in an unincorporated area near the Ellsworth Industrial Park. Notification to potentially responsible parties is a required procedure under the federal Superfund law and the preliminary step in conducting investigations into the past and present hazardous material handling and waste management techniques.

For the companies that have been actively pursuing pollution prevention programs and legally managing their wastes, the investigation is little more than a hassle of proving innocence. On the other hand, those companies that have been less than attentive to their waste handling procedures-look out! When the USEPA has data, as in the case above from sampling over 500 water wells and collecting soil borings from 90 locations since July 2001, they are looking for responsible parties to pay for the cleanup, which can be extremely costly and is in some cases devastating to the financial future of existing companies.

What can you do to ensure that this type of exposure and liability is minimized? The following offers some very basic ideas: Reduce your generator status to the smallest possible through pollution prevention, waste minimization, and product substitution programs.

There are three tiers of hazardous waste generators in the U.S. The category of most concern to the EPA is the large quantity generator. By and large, these are facilities that generate greater than 2,200 pounds of hazardous waste in any one month throughout the year. Most EPA hazardous waste inspections are focused on companies within this category. Reducing your waste means minimizing your exposure, especially if it results in a change from a large quantity generator to a small quantity generator or, better yet, achieving conditionally exempt status. Track hazardous waste from cradle- to-grave and keep accurate records, indefinitely.

There has been a lot of recent discussion on a statue of limitations for environmental pollution responsibilities. To date, the progress that has been made is easily undone either by EPA administrative discretionary and adjudication actions, court and administrative legal actions, or trial by public exposure and opinion. The bottom line is that you need to account for every pound of hazardous waste generated at your facility, including when it was generated, where it was stored, how it was shipped and ultimately disposed. Successful businesses should have no exceptions to this process. Once a satisfactory waste tracking system is in place, the process is not that time consuming and with scanning and electronic data back-up techniques, the excuses commonly associated with having to maintain old records doesn't hold up. Audit waste transportation and disposal facilities.

It is a requirement of hazardous waste generators to make sure they know where the waste is going and how it is disposed. A number of companies have no idea what happens to their waste after the truck comes and picks it up. Often times, the waste is stored at temporary locations for substantial periods of time, especially if it is awaiting a treatment method such as fuels blending, solidification, or de-watering. Keep in mind that inexpensive waste disposal is not always better, particularly when long-term liability is brought into the equation. Routinely audit transportation and disposal facilities to ensure they are doing what they say and to keep them on their toes. Store wastes and other hazardous materials in controlled areas.

Handling and storage of waste is just as important as knowing how the waste is handled offsite. Make sure that all materials and containers are properly labeled and stored in secure locations, away from high hazard operations, drains, heavy traveled corridors, etc. If waste must be stored outside, consider installing a containment dike and roof over the storage area. This will not only reduce the potential for an unwanted release, but also will assist in compliance with other programs, such as the storm water pollution prevention plan requirements. In addition to storing waste properly, make sure employees are properly trained and re-trained on waste handling and record keeping procedures.

Completing the above cannot guarantee that you will avoid the dreaded EPA letter, but it is the best way to proactively minimize liability and improve the environment.