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Putting Your Money Where your Trash Is: California Repair Facilities Pay Up for Hazardous Waste Disposal Violations

KPA /
proper waste disposal

Regulators across California continue their campaigns for stricter enforcement of environmental regulations. In my time working with car dealerships to stay ahead of the regulators, there’s one area that always comes back to haunt me again and again – dealing with hazardous waste. This is an area where it always feels a bit like I’m waiting for the next shoe to drop; for some new hotshot inspector from the fire department to look at something and say, “Hey, wait a minute,” and suddenly decide to add a new item to his personal hit-list of hazardous waste pet projects. And it only gets worse when that person starts passing his thoughts up the chain of command. The next thing you know, every other inspector in the state is looking for things nobody even asked about a year ago. The laws haven’t changed, but the attitudes about them sure do. Case in point? We only need to look to Northern California.

The Alameda County District Attorney announced a settlement in October with Service King, an auto body repair chain located throughout California, for $2.35 million following a 3-year investigation across multiple counties. Not only one month earlier in September, Alameda County reached a $3.7 million settlement with Pep Boys. And in June, the California Attorney General announced an $11 million settlement with AutoZone. These settlements are only the most recent examples where regulators have settled high-profile, multi-million-dollar cases with businesses in the automotive parts and repair industry for allegedly disposing of hazardous wastes in violation of state law.

In addition to the financial penalties, the businesses targeted by these suits have had significant disruption to their day-to-day activities. They have had to make major changes to their waste handling operations, often needing to add additional waste storage and choosing to handle non-hazardous wastes (such as empty bottles) as though they were hazardous just to avoid the appearance of non-compliance. Other facilities have struggled to provide proper documentation for the legal disposal of waste items, resulting in dozens of hours spent tracking down additional waste disposal documents from waste haulers and hazardous waste disposal facilities.

These cases all have shockingly similar elements: Regulators accuse facilities of mishandling common vehicle repair wastes. The wastes include items like waste oils, antifreeze, aerosol cans, and brake pads. Often, regulatory activities begin through routine site visits from local hazardous materials regulators. The results are forwarded to the local District Attorney for additional investigation, leading to undercover investigations that span several years and can evolve to include multiple affiliated “sister” locations. In conducting these investigations, investigators physically dig through the trash bins and identify waste items that should be managed as hazardous waste. Generally, these investigations continue under the radar of the facilities for three or four years, while regulators quietly gather their evidence.

“When businesses like this one illegally dispose of toxic waste,” Alameda County District Attorney Nancy E. O’Malley said of Pep Boys, “they pollute our natural resources. Substances like motor oil and automotive fluids leach into the soil and the groundwater. They make their way into streams, and eventually the San Francisco Bay, poisoning wildlife, sea life alike. There are good reasons that regulations exist for the disposal of toxic materials, and my office will continue to investigate and bring to justice any business that violates these important environmental protection laws.”

There are numerous wastes generated in the car service business that should not be allowed to find their way into the trash. I wish I could say that I found allegations of vehicle repair facilities mishandling waste shocking, or that it was unheard of for parts houses to let customers put hazardous waste into the trash, or that I had never found an unsecured dumpster behind a shop.  But I can’t. In my experience reviewing waste practices in service departments throughout the state, hazardous waste in trash cans and dumpsters is an all-too-often occurrence. Similarly, gaps in hazardous waste documents frequently crop up. What I do find shocking is how often these revelations are met with shrugs, or insistence that “this is how it’s always been done” and, “we’ve never gotten in trouble before!”

It’s not that these repair shops intentionally mishandle hazardous waste. There’s no evil villain twirling his mustache and laughing while he dumps bottles of oil down the drain.  From my communications with Service Managers, the problem usually lies with people not really understanding exactly what qualifies as hazardous waste. They also don’t fully understand how easy it is to make a mistake that could wind up leading to large fines and penalties. Even one or two half-empty bottles of oil in the trash could trigger a more thorough follow-up inspection from regulators. And that could rapidly (and quietly) snowball.  Additionally, waste regulators are no longer accepting “this is how it’s always been done” as an acceptable business practice.  Now, district attorneys are all too willing to set their sights on what they see as a historically under-enforced business group.

Fortunately, the solution to the problem is relatively simple. Repair facility managers should be certain that what they put in the trash is suitable for landfill. They should:

  • Understand the key categories of hazardous waste and their characteristics;
  • Complete a thorough characterization of each type of waste generated at their location;
  • Provide storage containers for regulated wastes (e.g., compliant waste-storage drums);
  • Ensure that regulated wastes are disposed of in a compliant manner, such as contracting with a hazardous waste hauler;
  • Keep records of regulated waste disposal for 3 years; and
  • Train all employees on waste management to ensure that they are not in the habit of putting regulated items in the trash.

The questions you should ask yourself now are: How confident are you that your hazardous waste is being managed properly? Is every oil bottle and aerosol can that goes into the trash completely empty 100% of the time? What about your old brake parts? Are you sure they don’t contain any regulated materials like copper?  Do you have well-organized documentation for the disposal of your used brake fluid? Used absorbents? Your e-wastes and household batteries? There is a lot to think about. I challenge you to take a look inside your service area trash cans and dumpsters over the next few weeks. What you find may very well surprise you, but it may not be surprising to your local regulator. They know exactly what’s in your trash and are all too happy to have a very expensive chat with you about it.

headshot of a manMichael Brockelhurst is a veteran Environmental Health and Safety consultant at KPA with 13 years of field experience. He consults across California covering a multitude of environmental compliance issues.  In his free time, he enjoys writing, music, and discussing philosophy.

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