Compliance Corner.


In the United States, hazardous wastes are subject to regulations mandated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Every month, we provide clear, in-depth guidance on a different aspect of the RCRA regulations. The information presented here is an excerpt from McCoy’s RCRA Unraveled, 2017 Edition.

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©2017 McCoy and Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.

Container Issues

EPA’s regulation of containers begins with a definition of the term; §260.10 defines a “container” to be:

“[A]ny portable device in which a material is stored, transported, treated, disposed of, or otherwise handled.”

EPA has made this definition intentionally broad to encompass all different types of portable devices that may be used to manage hazardous waste. Examples of containers range from rail cars, tanker trucks, and roll-off boxes to steel, plastic, and fiberboard drums of assorted sizes. Containers also include small buckets, cans, and laboratory test tubes.

The primary difference between a container and a tank is that a tank is stationary (usually bolted down), while a container is portable.

Inclusion of the phrase “or otherwise handled” in the definition given above would tend to make nearly any portable device in which hazardous waste is placed a hazardous waste container. There are some gray areas, however, as the next section illustrates.

Regulation of container-like equipment

Under EPA’s “contained-in” policy, equipment to be disposed that contains or has otherwise been in contact with hazardous waste must be managed as hazardous waste under the RCRA Subtitle C regulations. [RO 11219, 11325, 11387] However, if this hazardous equipment can be considered a container, it will not be subject to regulation if it is shown to be RCRA-empty. (See §261.7 for more on “RCRA-empty.”)

Based on the definition of “container” given in the previous section, many types of container-like equipment are regulated as containers: examples include mercury-containing items such as pumps, thermometers, manometers, thermostats, batteries, and ampules. [RO 14685] For instance, a pump containing elemental mercury is taken out of service. The pump is used to store and transport the mercury prior to its eventual treatment and disposal. EPA determined that the pump would meet the definition of a container if it is portable and, thus, would be subject to Part 264/265, Subpart I provisions. However, if the mercury were removed from the pump, rendering it empty per §261.7, the pump would be exempt from regulation. [RO 11647, 13788]

Similarly, disposable laboratory equipment (e.g., a pipet) used to analyze listed hazardous waste is normally subject to RCRA regulation under the contained-in policy when it is discarded. However, the agency indicated a pipet may meet the definition of a container and would therefore be exempt from hazardous waste regulation if it is RCRA-empty. [RO 13375]

Another common example of container-like equipment is the shell of an intact battery whose contents, when discarded, would be considered hazardous waste (e.g., a lead-acid automobile battery). EPA generally considers such battery shells to fit the definition of a container and regulates them as such. [March 22, 1982; 47 FR 12318, June 1, 1990; 55 FR 22637, RO 13339, 13638, 14675]

In RO 14587, EPA indicated that a cabinet could be a container (e.g., a satellite accumulation container) as long as it meets all of the container standards (which are discussed in the rest of this article).

In contrast to the above examples, EPA does not consider automotive oil filters to be containers, because they are designed to filter particulates from oil—not store it. As a result, a drained filter could not be an empty container. However, drained or crushed filters would be considered scrap metal and would be exempt from most RCRA regulations if recycled. [§261.6(a)(3)(ii), RO 11566, 13498, 14183, 14184]

Containers versus debris—LDR implications

When it added the debris rule as part of the land disposal restrictions (LDR) program on August 18, 1992, EPA noted in the preamble that it had received several comments/questions concerning the relationship between containers and debris (e.g., could empty containers be debris?). The agency stated “intact containers are never considered to be debris, and thus would never be subject to [LDR] treatment standards for debris.” EPA noted that the term “intact container” means a container that could “still function as a container,” and was “unbroken and still retains at least 75% of its original holding capacity.” [57 FR 37225, RO 13638, 14675] The agency reaffirmed this position in 2003, noting that mercury-containing items such as pumps, thermometers, manometers, thermostats, dental amalgam collection devices, and ampules are containers and thus do not fall under the debris definition. Instead, these items, when disposed, would be subject to nondebris LDR treatment standards for mercury wastes. [RO 14685] (Note that some of these wastes would be universal wastes under the federal regulations.)

Subsequent agency guidance has since expressed this logic in its reverse form, noting that containers that are ruptured, broken, or deteriorated (or have holes in them that allow material to flow in or out) can no longer function as containers and (if they contain or are contaminated with hazardous wastes) are hazardous debris subject to LDR treatment standards. [RO 14215, 14241, 14675]

Container-related issues

In this section, we address situations where the RCRA hazardous waste container requirements interact with other regulations.

DOT standards

First, most containers used for hazardous waste storage are ultimately slated for transportation to a TSD facility. EPA has therefore concluded that containers meeting Department of Transportation (DOT) standards [49 CFR Part 171–180] are also acceptable from an environmental protection prospective, as long as the Subpart I standards are met. [RO 12500, 12543]

Counting containerized waste

Hazardous waste accumulated in containers must be counted. However, questions have arisen over whether the weight of the container itself should be included when a generator calculates the amount of waste he/she generates monthly. According to EPA, a container’s weight should not be included in calculations of waste generation quantities or in generator’s biennial reports. However, since transporters sometimes charge based on the total weight they are carrying, hazardous waste manifests customarily show total (gross) weights (i.e., wastes plus containers). [RO 11803, 12151, 14827]

Weights that are listed on the manifest are often used by generators and inspectors to make estimations of generator status. If only the weight of the waste in a container is counted toward generator status, but the total weight is listed on the manifest, there could be some confusion about a generator’s actual generator status. EPA recommends that when containers are manifested, the generator use Block 14 of the manifest (Special Handling Instructions and Additional Information) to indicate that although the total weight is included on the manifest, the weight of the containers was not included in determining its generator status. [RO 14827]

In RO 12946, EPA provided somewhat conflicting guidance. Several chemotherapy drugs are U-listed wastes; in order to minimize exposure, EPA recommended against rendering vials holding these drugs empty under §261.7. Instead, the agency recommended that the entire volume of waste, including the vials themselves, be weighed.

Containers are not ancillary equipment to tanks

Certain tank systems, including their ancillary equipment, are exempt from RCRA permitting and Part 264/265 management standards if they qualify as wastewater treatment or elementary neutralization units. Some facilities were interested in whether containers used to store hazardous waste prior to its treatment in the exempt tanks could be considered part of the tank’s ancillary equipment and, therefore, enjoy the exemption from permitting/management standards. EPA determined that containers do not meet the definition of ancillary equipment and can never qualify for the wastewater treatment unit exemption. If such containers are used for storage—but not neutralization—of hazardous waste, they are also not exempt from regulation as elementary neutralization units. [RO 11551]

Containers and the liquids-in-landfills ban

Sections 264/265.314 prohibit landfilling containerized hazardous wastes that either are liquid or contain free liquid. A likely method facilities would use for dealing with the ban is to mix their containerized liquid hazardous waste with absorbents, thereby converting those materials to solids that would pass the paint filter test. This test is required to show the absence of free liquids. [§§264.314(b)/265.314(c)] However, several conditions limit the applicability of this scenario. First, the hazardous waste/absorbent mixture must be placed in containers prior to landfilling per §§264.314(c)/265.314(b). Second, any absorbents used to treat liquid in containerized hazardous waste must be nonbiodegradable. [§§264.314(d)/265.314(e), RO 11798, 13724]

EPA included an exception to the liquids-in-landfills ban for small containers (such as ampules [§§264.314(c)(2)/265.314(b)(2)]) and where a “container is designed to hold free liquids for use other than storage, such as a battery or capacitor.” [§§264.314(c)(3)/265.314(b)(3)] Explaining its logic, the agency noted that the difficulty of opening and emptying batteries and capacitors appears to outweigh the small benefit gained from eliminating the liquid content of such containers. In a similar vein and subject to certain limitations, EPA also exempts lab packs from the liquids-in-landfills ban in §§264.314(c)(4)/265.314(b)(4). [RO 12832]

Finally, the agency noted that an out-of-service pump that contains free liquid may still be landfilled because, even though it meets the definition of a container, it is designed to hold free liquids for use other than storage (just like a battery or capacitor). Thus, the facility would be exempt from the requirement to remove or absorb free liquids. [RO 13788] (Note that we find this logic somewhat tenuous and would caution facilities to check with their state before trying to use this exemption.)

Container management 101

A brief description of all container regulations in Part 264/265, Subpart I is given in Table 1.

Table 1

Containers must be closed

One of the primary causes of notices of violations for noncompliance with the RCRA regulations is that satellite and 90/180/270-day hazardous waste containers are not closed. The requirement that containers of hazardous waste be closed is stated clearly in §§264/265.173(a):

“A container holding hazardous waste must always be closed during storage, except when it is necessary to add or remove waste.”

While no definition of “closed” is provided in the regulations, EPA explained that the purpose of this requirement is “to minimize emissions of volatile wastes, to help protect ignitable or reactive wastes from sources of ignition or reaction, to help prevent spills, and to reduce the potential for mixing of incompatible wastes and direct contact of facility personnel with waste.” [May 19, 1980; 45 FR 33199] Based on this preamble language, we have generally interpreted the agency’s intent as requiring containers to be vapor tight and spill proof.

EPA issued considerable guidance on this issue on December 3, 2009, which it updated on November 3, 2011 and reissued as RO 14826. Developed to assist federal and state regulators and the regulated community with the closed-container provisions of §§264/265.173(a), this guidance is relevant to both small and large quantity generators accumulating waste in satellite accumulation and 90/180/270-day accumulation areas. Similarly, it is applicable to containers being stored at RCRA permitted and interim status facilities. The discussion below summarizes the guidance in RO 14826.

Satellite accumulation containers

Satellite accumulation containers holding free liquids or liquid hazardous wastes are closed “when all openings or lids are properly and securely affixed to the container, except when wastes are actually being added to or removed from the container.” The objective of ensuring that the lid is securely fixed to the container or securely covers the container is to prevent vapor emissions and prevent a spill if the container is tipped over. According to EPA, if hazardous waste will frequently be added to the container, it may not be practical to secure snap rings, securely cap the bungholes, etc. during working hours. However, the container must still be covered tightly to prevent spills and air emissions.

In those situations where funnels are used, EPA recommends that they be screwed tightly into the bunghole and be equipped with manually or spring-closed lids; such lids may be fitted with a gasket or lid locking mechanism to seal the funnel lid firmly closed. Funnels with a one-way valve that allows waste to enter the container but prevents waste or emissions from exiting may also be used.

EPA noted that liquid hazardous wastes can also be accumulated in open-head drums or containers (e.g., where the entire container lid is removable and typically secured with a ring and bolts or a snap ring). These containers meet the definition of “closed” if the rings are clamped or bolted to the container. However, the agency indicated that a container could be considered closed in some situations if the lid covers the container top securely even though the rings are not clamped or bolted.

For containers that continuously receive liquid hazardous wastes (e.g., laboratory instruments draining to small bottles or jugs), even though the containers may require a vent system, they must still be closed to minimize releases. In these situations, EPA recommends secondary containment, such as a pan, and/or securing the containers to prevent overturning. When the process or laboratory instrument is not in operation, the containers should be closed.

Satellite containers holding solid and semisolid hazardous wastes are closed when there is complete contact between the lid and the rim all around the top of the container. This includes containers with covers opened by a foot pedal. Per EPA, having a tight seal prevents VOC emissions. Seals on containers can erode over time, so the agency recommends inspecting any such seals and replacing them if necessary. EPA noted that containers continuously or intermittently receiving solid or semisolid wastes often remain open while connected to the process unit (e.g., a baghouse or filter press). Such containers should be capable of catching and retaining all material during transfer to avoid spills or releases. Roll-off containers should be closed with either manufacturer-supplied lids that provide a good seal around the rim or covered with tarps with no visible holes or gaps/open spaces.

90/180/270-day containers

For wastes in central accumulation areas, EPA takes a less flexible approach. The agency noted that containers in central accumulation areas are closed if bungholes are capped and lids are secured with rings that are tightly clamped or bolted. So again, these containers must be vapor tight and spill proof. Where appropriate, pressure-relief valves should be used to maintain the container’s internal pressure to avoid explosions.

Some equipment (e.g., a baghouse or filter press) generates waste nearly continuously. Where a large container is being used to collect hazardous waste which is continually exiting from the equipment, it might be necessary to leave the container open to collect waste until the process stops. Is it acceptable to leave the container open the entire time it is connected to or positioned to collect waste from the baghouse or filter press?

No. Section 265.173(a) requires that a hazardous waste container must always be closed during storage, except when it is necessary to add or remove waste. Where a container is being used to collect hazardous waste which is continually exiting from the baghouse or filter press, then it might be “necessary” to leave the container open to collect waste until the process is stopped. In the more common circumstance, however, where the deposition of hazardous waste into containers is a batch process, a container of hazardous waste must be kept closed during times when the process is not depositing hazardous waste into the container. [RO 14826]

Preventing spills

EPA recommends that to prevent spills, containers should be located in areas with little or no vehicular traffic (e.g., forklifts). In those situations where container lids are not securely affixed to the container, the agency recommends the practice of securing containers with a chain or strap to a wall or building support column to prevent accidental overturning of the container. Furthermore, the agency supports the use of secondary containment systems, although their use is not mandatory under the federal regulations except for permitted container storage areas.

Miscellaneous container closure guidance

Other types of containers used for managing hazardous waste in satellite or central accumulation areas include: bags, boxes, roll-off boxes, and plastic or steel totes. The agency considers these containers closed when they are “sealed to the extent necessary to keep the hazardous waste and associated air emissions inside the container.”

Many containers are subject to the Subpart CC air emission standards. In RO 14826, EPA indicated that for roll-off containers that are not “in light material service,” the use of a tarp with no visible holes, gaps, or open spaces is an example of a suitable Subpart CC Level 1 control device. However, if using a tarp under Subpart CC, it would also have to be suitable for weather conditions, including exposure to wind, moisture, and sunlight. If a roll-off container is subject to Level 2 controls, the use of a tarp would not be an acceptable closure device.

EPA noted that this guidance does not supersede or replace any existing state closed-container guidance. Different states (and even different state inspectors) may have their own, more specific definition of “closed.” State inspectors often use the following rule of thumb: if the contents would spill if the container was overturned, then the container is considered open. (Relief from this rule of thumb is sometimes available if the container holds physically solid material.)


Topic: Tank Inspection Requirements

©2017 McCoy and Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.


Considerable care has been exercised in preparing this document; however, McCoy and Associates, Inc. makes no representation, warranty, or guarantee in connection with the publication of this information. McCoy and Associates, Inc. expressly disclaims any liability or responsibility for loss or damage resulting from its use or for the violation of any federal, state, or municipal law or regulation with which this information may conflict. McCoy and Associates, Inc. does not undertake any duty to ensure the continued accuracy of this information.

This document addresses issues of a general nature related to the federal RCRA regulations. Persons evaluating specific circumstances dealing with the RCRA regulations should review state and local laws and regulations, which may be more stringent than federal requirements. In addition, the assistance of a qualified professional should be enlisted to address any site-specific circumstances.