A DES achievement: safe disposal of hazardous waste

The Hazardous Waste Coordinator Certification program ensures good management practices

It was in 1976 that President Ford signed into law the federal Resource Conservation Recovery Act to establish comprehensive standards for safely managing hazardous wastes. In doing so, he cited the special threat of hazardous waste disposal, calling it "one of the highest priority environmental problems confronting the nation."

When the Department of Environmental Services was formed in 1987, the state already had an inventory of nearly 300 sites at which soil and groundwater had become contaminated by improper disposal of hazardous waste.

In 1981, the Office of Waste Management, a predecessor agency to DES, began implementing the hazardous waste program in New Hampshire. In the early years, New Hampshire, like all the other states, implemented its program using the “command and control” model by performing comprehensive inspections at a select few facilities and taking enforcement actions to address violations, which often included significant financial penalties.

Premised on the belief that the fear of severe penalties will drive businesses to compliance, this philosophy prevailed through the 1990s, and was, in many respects, successful.

While DES inspectors continued to find facilities out of compliance with the rules, the severity of violations diminished overall, and improper disposal of waste declined sharply. However, DES was able to perform inspections at only a very small fraction of regulated facilities, and this approach did not result in sustained, consistent compliance.

In 2002, DES completed a statewide hazardous waste compliance survey that starkly illustrated these weaknesses. Of 429 businesses surveyed, the average facility had a dismal 65 percent compliance rate. A dramatic change was needed to address the poor compliance rate and DES’s inability to reach out to a greater number of regulated businesses.

Experience had shown that the most compliant facilities had well-trained staff and who frequently communicated with DES, asking questions and exploring concerns. Conversely, staff at the least compliant facilities were poorly trained and often fearful of contacting DES.

A new approach would need to incorporate improved training opportunities and encourage frequent communication between our staff and the businesses that we regulate. DES proposed the Hazardous Waste Coordinator Certification (HWCC) program.

Established by the Legislature in 2002, the HWCC program requires that one person from each facility that generates 220 pounds (about 30 gallons) or more of hazardous waste in a month obtain certification and attend annual refresher training. The training is provided by DES staff who are experts on the hazardous waste rules.

Training “from the source” assures that businesses keep up-to-date with changes and interpretations of regulations, and that at least one person at each facility will have significant knowledge of the requirements. Further, annual recertification ensures that staff turnover at facilities does not result in a loss of regulatory knowledge within the company and “back-sliding” to non-compliance.

Of equal importance, the program dramatically reduces the anxiety associated with interacting with regulators and results in vastly improved communications between DES and regulated facilities.

After almost 10 years, the overall level of knowledge and quality of waste management programs at New Hampshire facilities has never been higher.

The program currently regulates approximately 350 facilities and trains an average of 850 individuals per year.

Having educated and knowledgeable hazardous waste generators leads to good hazardous waste management practices and prevents damaging releases or spills to our air, water and land. While traditional inspection and enforcement will always remain an important component of our compliance assurance efforts, we are proud of the leadership role we have taken in making the HWCC program the centerpiece of those efforts.

Thomas S. Burack is commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Services, which in 2012 celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Categories: Opinion