Hazardous Waste (RCRA) and Retailers

When most people think of businesses that handle hazardous waste, they think of manufacturing and other industrial companies.  The classic image is the storage of 55 gallon drums marked with placards indicating the contents are hazardous. 

In the last two years and unlikely sector has found themselves the focus hazardous waste enforcement and regulatory development- retails stores.  National awareness occurred in 2013 when Walmart announced a settlement with EPA to resolve violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), and the Clean Water Act (CWA) .  The violations were related to the handling of returned, unsold, and off-specification products. Walmart agreed to pay $7.628 million in civil penalties and pled guilty and agreed to pay $81.6 million in three federal criminal cases. Walmart entered into a Consent Agreement and Final Order (CAFO) with EPA, under which Walmart agreed to implement various measures to ensure future compliance. 

While the Walmart settlement was the largest, EPA and State EPA's have been very active in taking enforcement against retailers.  Actions include:

  • Walgreen Co., $16.6 Million (2012)
  • Costco Warehouse, $3.6 Million (2012);
  • CVS Pharmacy, $800,000 (CT, 2013) and $13.75 Million (CA, 2012
    settlement);
  • Target Corp., $22.5 Million (2011);
  • Home Depot, $425,000 (2006) and $10 Million (2007).

When Does RCRA Become an Issue for Retailers?

Products are not regulated as a hazardous waste.  However, if a product is returned by a customer or the store takes the product off the shelf due to damage or for some other reason, the product can become a hazardous waste if it meets certain characteristics.

At issue for retailers are paints, aerosol cans, bleach, polishes, and other chemical products that could be considered reactive, ignitable, corrosive or toxic.  When those products are returned by customers or if they are removed from the store, the retailer must evaluate whether the product has become a hazardous waste and should be managed as such.  

Waste can be generated at the retail store level through customer returns, household hazardous waste events, product recalls, damaged product containers or packaging, off specification product, unauthorized dumping, customer spills, and change out of inventory by the store. 

Large retailers also use reverse logistics systems to consolidate products that may be returned or removed from retail stores.   These products are sent to consolidation centers where decisions can be made regarding whether the product can still be sold, returned to the vendor, donated, recycled or discarded.  

Is a removed/returned product a "waste" when it leaves the retail store or when the decision is made it is to be discarded at the consolidation center?  That is one of many critical open issues facing retailers.

If a product is a hazardous waste, then it must be stored, managed, transported and disposed properly.  In addition, RCRA's "cradle to grave" regulatory scheme requires maintenance of required paperwork to verify any hazardous waste was managed properly.

EPA Collects Information Regarding Hazardous Waste Requirements for Retailers

On February 14, 2014, EPA released a Notice of Data Availability (NODA) in order to "collect information towards improving hazardous waste requirements for the retail sector."  In the NODA EPA sums up the challenge facing retailers- "Retailers are required to make numerous hazardous waste determinations at thousands of sites, generally by store employees with limited experience with the RCRA hazardous waste regulations."

Some national retailers (Walmart and Home Depot) already submitted comments to EPA.  Some of the issues/concerns raised by these retailers include:

  1.  Waste characterization at the retail store level by employees with little training or understanding of the regulations;
  2. Generation of waste at the store level that can force stores to fluctuate between Conditionally Exempts Small Quantity Generator to Large Quantity Generator status under RCRA (different regulations apply depending on the store's classification);
  3. The lack of applicability of the Household Hazardous Waste Exemption which allows customers to dispose of the same products in the trash as EPA requires retailers to manage as a hazardous waste;
  4. Argue for the application of Universal Waste classification which would make it much easier for retailers to manage products; and
  5. Application of RCRA regulations to central processing centers utilized by retailers;
  6. Regulation of empty prescription bottles;
  7. Ambiguous regulations of electronic waste.

Retailers identify legitimate issues with application of RCRA to their stores.  In reality, RCRA was designed to regulate generate hazardous waste from industrial operations, not consumer stores.  

How EPA decides to move forward to develop sensible regulations will be very interesting to watch. However, in the meantime, retail stores must be aware there is not "timeout" while EPA figures this out.  No better evidences exists than the multi-million dollar enforcement cases against large retailers.

(Photo: courtesy Flickr Catawba County)

The Threat of Personal Liability for Environmental Violations of Small Businesses

Owners of small business form corporations, in part, to insulate themselves from personal liability. A recent trend in Ohio is that the State has become far more aggressive in pursuing owners of small businesses personally in environmental enforcement actions.

A business owner could still be pursued even if the corporate formalities were followed.  More and more the State is pursuing any president or owner of a small business who has an active role in managing his company day-to-day.

Due to the high costs associated with environmental compliance, this is a trend that owners of small businesses should be aware of and take prudent steps to try and protect themselves. 

"Piercing the Corporate Veil"

A fundamental rule of corporate law is that, normally, shareholders, officers, and directors are not liable for the debts of the corporation. There are exceptions to this rule  Courts have found that the “veil” of the corporation can be “pierced” and individual shareholders held liable for corporate misdeeds when it would be unjust to allow the shareholders to hide behind the fiction of the corporate entity.  This is commonly referred to as "piercing the corporate veil."

The test in Ohio for disregarding the corporate form is whether:

  1. Control over the corporation by those to be held liable was so complete that the corporation has no separate mind, will or existence of its own;
  2. Control over the corporation by those to be held liable was exercised in such a manner as to commit fraud or an illegal act against the person seeking to disregard the corporate entity; and 
  3. Injury or unjust loss resulted to the plaintiff from such control and wrong.

[See, Belvedere Condominium Unit Owners' Assn. v. R.E. Roark Cos. (1993), 67 Ohio St.3d 274, 287, 617 N.E.2d 1075]

It had been a rare instance when the AGO would try to "pierce the corporate veil" and pursue shareholders, owners or officers of a corporate personally for environmental violations.  That has changed since the State won a victory in 2006 in case of State of Ohio v. Mercomp.  In that case, the State successfully pierced the corporate veil attaching personal liability to Manny Rock, a shareholder of a landfill.

What Actions Gave Rise to Liability?

 Here are some of the facts that the Court gave rise to personal liability:

  • Mr. Rock was the sole shareholder of the corporation;
  • The name of the corporation was based upon his initials;
  • Regulatory violations by a corporation, absent affirmative wrongful conduct by the shareholder, is sufficient; and
  • The failure of the Corporation to correct the environmental violations threatened public health and the environment.

It is important to note that the Court found liability even though it did not find under-capitalization, failure to observe corporate formalities, insolvency, or diversion of corporate funds for personal use.

Since 2006 State Seeks Individual Liability Frequently

Since the Mercomp decision in 2006, the State of Ohio has frequently sought (and obtained) personal liability of owners of small businesses.  Individuals are not only required to perform clean up, they are also subject to civil penalties if they don't perform on a timely basis. 

For small businesses that have a sole or large majority shareholder, the Mercomp case increases the liability risks for individuals.  If a company has environmental violations that have gone unaddressed, the State may argue for personal liability.

Owners of small businesses must be aware of these risks and take steps to try and protect themselves. .

Missing Hazardous Waste Paper Work Can Be Costly

Federal hazardous waste regulations (RCRA) have long been referred to as management from "cradle to grave."  In order meet this management principle, the regulations require detailed paper work and reporting from both small and large businesses. 

Failure to maintain the proper paper work can result in significant penalties or even change your regulatory status which will have even greater implications.  Just in 2008, Ohio EPA Division of Hazardous Waste Management (DHWM) has taken 24 formal enforcement actions that included assessment of civil penalties.  Those penalties have ranged from $4,000 to $75,000.  Many of the actions were against small to medium sized businesses.

In addition, hazardous waste enforcement cases will often be reported in the newspaper, even in the small town local newspaper.  If you want to avoid the bad publicity and a costly fine, it pays to review your company's paper work practices. 

A recent EHS blog post provided a good example of the dangers of missing paperwork. 

But in the absence of any documentation that showed the facility never generated more than 2200 lbs of waste in a calendar month, the inspector assumed incorrectly that the facility generated all the wastes that were shipped out in August of 2001 in that month. [shipped out more than 2200 lbs in the month] The reality was that the wastes in the two shipments made in August had been accumulated over the past several months.

The fact the company did not maintain good records resulted in the inspector citing them for being a Large Quantity Generator (LQG) even though in reality the company was a Small Quantity Generator (SQG).  Without the proper records, the inspector's conclusion becomes difficult to refute.

Ohio EPA has identified the most frequently cited RCRA violations in Ohio.  Reviewing the following list of frequent  categories of violations is a good place to start in determining if your company is property managing hazardous waste. 

  • Waste Determination- The regulations require all waste to be evaluated.  This is often an area overlooked by businesses. Failing to evaluate just one barrel of waste can result in a citation. Ohio EPA developed a handy fact sheet that is worth reviewing to get yourself familiar with these requirements.
  • Annual Reports-  All LQG must submit a report by March 1st for the preceding year.  Review your files to makes sure you have submitted annual reports. 
  • Container Management- Must inspect your hazardous waste storage areas at least once a week and maintain a log documenting those inspections.  Ohio EPA has provided a hazardous waste storage inspection log sheet that can be used to maintain your records.
  • Emergency Equipment Inspections- SQG and LQG must maintain a log of inspections showing all emergency equipment (fire suppression, spill containment, alarms) were inspected as recommended by the manufacturer or supplier of the equipment.  Ohio EPA also has a emergency equipment inspection log sheet you can use to maintain these required records.
  • Used Oil Storage-  All containers use to store used oil must be properly labeled with a sign that says "used oil."  Using terms like "hazardous waste" or "waste oil" is not sufficient.
  • Large Quantity Tank Systems-  All LQG's that use tanks to store hazardous waste must inspect the tank once "each operating day."  A log of inspections must be maintained. According to an Ohio EPA fact sheet, this means each day the tank is in use.  Even if workers are not on-site seven days a week.

(photo from flickr: Ashe-Villian)