25 for 25: DES's Innovative Approach to Assuring Safe Disposal of Hazardous Waste
By Thomas S. Burack, DES Commissioner
It was only in 1976 that President Ford signed into law the federal Resource Conservation Recovery Act to establish comprehensive standards for safely managing hazardous wastes. In doing so, he cited the special threat of hazardous waste disposal, calling it "one of the highest priority environmental problems confronting the Nation." Some eleven years later when the Department of Environmental Services (DES) was formed in 1987, the state already had an inventory of nearly three hundred sites at which soil and groundwater had become contaminated by improper disposal of hazardous waste.
In 1981, the NH Office of Waste Management, a predecessor agency to DES, began implementing the hazardous waste program in New Hampshire. In the early years, New Hampshire, like all the other states, implemented its program using the “command and control” model by performing comprehensive inspections at a select few facilities, and taking enforcement actions to address violations, which often included significant financial penalties. Premised on the belief that the fear of severe penalties will drive businesses to compliance, this philosophy prevailed through the 1990’s, and was, in many respects, successful. While DES inspectors continued to find facilities out of compliance with the rules, the severity of violations diminished overall, and improper disposal of waste declined sharply. However, DES was able to perform inspections at only a very small fraction of regulated facilities and this approach did not result in sustained, consistent compliance.
In 2002, DES completed a state-wide hazardous waste compliance survey that starkly illustrated these weaknesses. Of 429 businesses surveyed, the average facility had a dismal 65% compliance rate. A dramatic change was needed to address the poor compliance rate and DES’s inability to reach out to a greater number of regulated businesses.
Experience had shown that the most compliant facilities had well-trained staff and who frequently communicated with DES, asking questions and exploring concerns. Conversely, staff at the least compliant facilities were poorly trained and often fearful of contacting DES. A new approach would need to incorporate improved training opportunities and encourage frequent communication between our staff and the businesses that we regulate. After careful consideration, DES proposed the Hazardous Waste Coordinator Certification (HWCC) Program.
Established by the NH Legislature in 2002, the HWCC Program requires that one person from each facility that generates 220 pounds (about 30 gallons) or more of hazardous waste in a month obtain certification and attend annual refresher training. The training is provided by DES staff who are experts on the hazardous waste rules. The program first teaches the basics of hazardous waste compliance and then follows up annually with refresher training, providing advanced courses covering more in-depth hazardous waste issues. Training “from the source” assures that businesses keep up-to-date with changes and interpretations of regulations, and that at least one person at each facility will have significant knowledge of the requirements. Further, annual recertification ensures that staff turnover at facilities does not result in a loss of regulatory knowledge within the company and “back-sliding” to non-compliance. Of equal importance, the program dramatically reduces the anxiety associated with interacting with regulators and results in vastly improved communications between DES and regulated facilities.
New Hampshire was the first state in the nation to take such a proactive approach to training and certifying its hazardous waste generators, but other states are now following our example. After almost ten years of the program’s operation, the overall level of knowledge and quality of waste management programs at NH facilities has never been higher. The program currently regulates approximately 350 facilities and trains an average of 850 individuals per year. While only NH’s larger generators are required to attend, participants include smaller facilities, hazardous waste transporters, and consultants. The success of the program is based upon the underlying belief that people want to do the right thing and manage their wastes properly, and that providing the right training will ensure their success.
Having educated and knowledgeable hazardous waste generators leads to good hazardous waste management practices and prevents damaging releases or spills to our air, water and land. While traditional inspection and enforcement will always remain an important component of our compliance assurance efforts, we are proud of the leadership role we have taken in making the HWCC program the centerpiece of those efforts. As DES looks forward to the next 25 years, we are confident that the Hazardous Waste Coordinator Certification program will play a vital role in helping New Hampshire businesses protect our precious environment while they grow and prosper.
Author’s Note: In recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, over the course of the year, I will highlight 25 agency activities, programs, projects and accomplishments of the past 25 years. This article, the 22nd in the series, relates to the DES Hazardous Waste Coordinator Certification Program.
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