Capitol Comments

Recent EPA Activities Spotlight Industrial Laundries

By Peter Mayberry and Jessica Franken | September 22, 2009

wiper rule intends to equalize regulations impacting laundered and non-laundered wipes for industrial usage; won't be finalized until after Bush leaves

As this column went to press, it had become clear—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would not be able to finish work on the industrial wiper rule before the Bush Admini­stration leaves office. As "Capitol Comments" readers likely know, this rule was originally proposed in 2003 and is intended to equalize the differing regulatory schemes that EPA applies to laundered and non-laundered wiping products used for industrial applications.

Generally speaking, EPA has separate sets of regulations to govern handling and disposal of non-laundered wipes and laundered shop towels for decaded, despite the fact that the potentially hazardous material that ends up on both types of wiping products is the real environmental concern.

The fact that the current administration could not get this rule finalized is a big letdown for those of us who have worked so long on this rulemaking project, especially considering assurances from senior EPA officials in 2001 that it was a priority for the Bush White House. Despite those assurances,as of mid-October, EPA was putting the finishing touches on a Notice of Data Availability (NODA) that must be released for public comment before the industrial wiper rule can be finalized.

Release of a NODA is necessary because the Agency had to re-do portions of the risk analysis that underlies the proposed version of the rule. This risk assessment do-over, by itself, took nearly two years to complete after EPA officials spent some 18 months mulling whether the original risk analysis actually had to be revisited.

At this point, for the rule to become final, we must wait for a new administration to take office in January 2009 and appoint a new EPA administrator. Once the new EPA administrator is in place, we will have to wait for the appointment of a new director of EPA's Office of Solid Waste.

Once that person is in office, we will have to wait for the new OSW director to put his/her stamp of approval on a finalized version of the rule before an actual regulation will ever be able to see the light of day. All told, therefore, it could be late 2009 or early 2010 before EPA finishes its work on this important regulation.

RCRA Definition of Solid Waste

The Federal law governing treatment, handling and disposal of hazardous material is known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act or RCRA. Under RCRA, there are "listed" hazardous waste materials—an actual list—and "characteristic" hazardous waste materials (substances that are not listed but nevertheless are ignitable, corrosive, toxic, or reactive). To be a hazardous waste under RCRA, a material must first be deemed a solid waste. ed.

On October 7, after more than five years of work, EPA released a final regulation that creates a regulatory exclusion from the RCRA definition of solid waste for materials that are recycled. The result of this new regulation is expected to be the removal of about 1.5 million tons of material from hazardous waste streams annually. Activities most affected by the regulation, according to EPA, are solvent and metal recycling.

Without delving into all of the nuances of this final rule and recognizing that the full ramifications are still unknown, there are a couple of intriguing implications associated with this new regulation. First of all, the regulation appears to offer a potential avenue out of the RCRA program for disposal of nonwoven wipes.

That is, under the new regulation, it may be possible to remove solvent or other RCRA material for recycling and throw away the spent wiper as regular trash. To gain such an exemption, according to EPA, RCRA material would have to be legitimately reclaimed at the site where it was generated or used wipers could be picked up and transferred to another company so that the RCRA material could be reclaimed.

This leads to the second potential implication of the new rule. To ensure that recycling activities are legitimate, the regulation stipulates that RCRA material collected for recycling meet two conditions: 1) it must provide a useful contribution to the recycling process; and 2) the recycling must make a valuable new intermediate or final product.

Additionally, the regulation takes into account whether the recycled material is managed as a valuable product; andwhether contains toxic constituents at significantly greater levels than a non-recycled product made from virgin materials. These two considerations could have an impact on the industrial laundry industry for a couple of reasons. First of all, these stipulations can be used to underscore the fact that industrial laundries don't really "recycle" waste materials at all. Instead, laundries wash rented shop towels and discharge all the spent solvent and other potentially hazardous waste directly into municipal supplies of drinking water. Secondly, the conditions required to gain exemption from the RCRA definition of solid waste appear to be much more stringent than the conditions that EPA has proposed industrial laundries must meet to win a similar exemption under the draft industrial wiper rule. Once the industrial wiper rule is finalized, therefore, EPA could be challenged if that rule contains conditions for an exemption that are less strenuous than those implemented in the 2008 rule.

EPA Fines G&K Services Nearly Half-Million Dollars

In a press release issued October 6, 2008, EPA announced that G&K services—a commercial laundry operation headquartered in Minnetonka, MN–was fined $425,000 for "numerous violations" at two of its facilities in California. Specifically, EPA determined in 2007 that G&K facilities in Santa Fe Springs and Pittsburg were "large quantity generators of hazardous waste, including waste solvent, volatile organics—benzene, chloroform and trichloroethylene—used oil, used oil filters, spent fluorescent lamps and spent antifreeze."

Indeed, EPA inspectors found, among other things, that G&K failed to: 1) properly store ignitable waste; 2) meet air emission standards for tanks and containers; 3) mark and label hazardous storage tanks; 4) conduct and document weekly inspections of hazardous storage tanks and 5) meet air emission standards for equipment leaks.

This is not the first time that the operators of an industrial laundry have been fined for egregious violations of Federal law as well as state and/or local requirements, but the sheer size of the fine levied against G&K suggests a punitive signal from EPA that such violations are not to be tolerated. The irony is that the laundry industry repeatedly claims of environmental superiority when comparing its services to competitors' products. But when the record of fines, violations, and accidents attributable to industrial laundries is examined–along with the fact that industrial laundries discharge millions of tons of effluent to crumbling municipal water treatment facilities every year—educated citizens and government officials should not be fooled one bit by launderer attempts to "green wash" their operations.

Related Application: