The kind of business regulated by environmental laws typically has been seen as a large factory billowing out smoke or discharging waste into streams. Soon, however, even the corner store will have to seriously consider the environmental impact of its operation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency admits it will be no easy task for it to enforce new regulations, nor for small businesses to comply with them.
Half a drum is all it takes. Businesses that generate 220 pounds or more of hazardous waste a month must comply with a variety of EPA regulations governing how to store, transport, treat and recycle their hazardous wastes under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
RCRA is the federal hazardous waste management law enacted in 1976 and amended in 1984 and 1986. It requires all waste generators to maintain standards for hazardous waste record-keeping, reporting, labeling and storage. Generators and transporters are also required to use a manifest system to track waste from its source to eventual disposal or alternative processing. The law also includes standards for storage and disposal facilities.
The list of wastes deemed hazardous continues to grow, further expanding the number of RCRA-covered generators. EPA bases its criteria for listing wastes as hazardous on criteria related primarily to effects on health such as toxicity, persistence, degradability in nature, potential for accumulation in human tissues and traits such as corrosiveness and flammability. EPA defines small-quantity generators as those producing between 220 and 2,200 pounds of hazardous waste a month. The United States has an estimated 600,000 small-quantity generators. All together, the nation's dry cleaners, auto body shops, printers and many other small businesses generate some 940,000 metric tons of hazardous waste annually.
How can corner gas stations and mom-and-pop dry cleaners afford to comply with regulations that in some cases require special methods of disposal, on-site recycling and employee education? The EPA concedes that it may be a struggle.
The costs of compliance can be substantial. For example, electroplating businesses must meet new rules for toxic sludge disposal, and those with 20 to 49 employees will have an estimated annual environmental bill of $13,430.
Joseph Koach, executive director of Service Station Dealers of America, is concerned. He criticizes some of the regulations, such as employee education requirements, for being "cumbersome and costly." Regulations governing underground gas tanks are more than just a nuisance. At $70,000 to $100,000 to replace a defective tank, dealers may be forced out of business, Koach says.
Auto body repair shops work on 45 million damaged cars annually. Don Randall, environmental attorney for the Automotive Service Assn., believes that new regulations governing auto body shops are especially burdensome because insurers, who control compensation, have so far failed to recognize that compliance with environmental law is increasing the cost of doing business.
The fact that technology lags behind regulations will also make it hard to comply without spending large amounts of money, Randall says. Rulings on volatile organic compounds are forcing body shops in the Southern California Air Basin to reduce evaporation from paint. Unless new technology is developed fast, businesses will have to invest in hermetically sealed paint booths, Randall says. At about $75,000 per booth, this would force a dramatic change in the structure of the industry, he says. Similar regulations have been adopted in New York and are pending in Texas and New Jersey.
Regulations remain as strong as their enforcement, however, and both state and federal governments indicate they will be increasingly turning their attention to small-quantity generators. EPA recently warned thousands of businesses that they can be forced to shut down if they fail to comply with the new rules.
And small businesses may not be the last to attract attention. As definitions of threats to human health and hazardous waste continue to be modified, environmental regulators are expected eventually to be knocking on the door of the family home. The public's cry for protection from polluters could conceivably come right back to their own doorstep.
Grant Ferrier is editor of the San Diego-based Environmental Business Journal.
1990, Los Angeles Times Syndicate