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Where to Stash the Trash? Trouble for Automotive Shops in California

It is more important than ever for auto shop operators to take proactive steps to safely manage waste before receiving significant fines

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to expand its regulatory framework for the automotive industry, it is more important than ever for auto shop owners and operators to take proactive steps to safely manage waste, protect customers and improve sustainability before receiving significant fines or damage to their reputation.

Steven Schillinger

Automotive service and repair shops produce millions of tons of hazardous waste every year and toxic waste that can leak into the groundwater or become airborne. It’s waste that can explode, spark fires, eat through metal containers, destroy ecosystems and sicken people in the community. Dangerous materials that we have come to rely on and ignore; the flammable liquids used to clean metal parts before painting; the lead and acid in old car batteries and even the used oil that can kill fish … It all needs to go somewhere.

EPA and OSHA inspectors have cited auto repair shops for leaking containers and cracked containment barriers. They identified poorly maintained wells that might allow toxic waste to seep into the environment and they have fined businesses for failing to address contamination on their site in a timely manner. Among the pollutants that regulators have documented in soil and groundwater are trichloroethylene and hexavalent chromium — the cancer-causing chemicals made famous in the movie Erin Brockovich.

The rules for handling dangerous waste in the auto service and repair industry dates back to the 1970s, when various state and federal officials began trying to define “hazardous.” That’s when they created regulations branding certain materials with a label based on Characteristics including ignitability (would it burst into flames?), corrosivity (could it eat through a metal container?), toxicity (are you more likely to get cancer if you’re exposed to it?) and reactivity (is it unstable and likely to explode?).

California hired an outside consultant to review their Hazardous Waste permitting process. According to the consultant’s report, permit renewals averaged 4.3 years, and some took much longer. The report blamed staffing issues, a lack of standardized processes, unclear criteria for denial and poor management. 

Almost half of the hazardous waste generated in California winds up in other states, frequently in states with weaker environmental regulations, according to an analysis of shipping records. (California’s standards are tougher than the federal ones. Waste considered hazardous in California can sometimes be disposed of at regular landfills in states like Arizona and Utah.)

A draft Hazardous Waste Management Report is the starting point to determine information needed to generate a Plan due in 2025. The feedback period for the report began on July 17 and ended on September 17, 2023. The main objectives were as follows:

  • Establish a baseline understanding of the management of hazardous waste in the State of California.
  • Identify data gaps and items that require additional research.
  • Begin planning to fill data gaps and perform additional research.

The number of disposal sites in California that have permits to treat, store or dispose of hazardous waste has dropped by more than 80 percent since 1990, while the number of places that generate this waste grew by more than 70 percent, according to a CA State Report. Only 72 permitted facilities remain in California to handle the waste of over 95,000 generators. Many are operating on expired permits. And most are located in communities of color, often ones with high rates of poverty, despite recent environmental justice laws meant to ensure that the most disadvantaged do not face the greatest pollution exposure.

“It’s been frustrating because it’s been years already,” said Grecia Orozco, staff attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, an environmental advocacy organization involved in crafting legislation.

Now more than five years after the deadline, California still hasn’t adopted another major piece of Hazardous Materials (HazMat) law: regulations for considering “cumulative impact” on communities in permitting decisions. That means there’s no requirement to look at how much risk residents are facing while the state is deciding whether to allow a hazardous waste site to keep operating.

“It’s difficult to permit a new hazmat disposal facility. There’s going to be a lot of resistance to building a new one,” said Bill Magavern, the Coalition for Clean Air’s policy director, who advised on a state report that examined the hazardous waste permitting process. “So, the path of least resistance is keeping some of the old ones going.”

Laws allow hazardous waste disposal facilities to operate on an expired permit while they’re working to get a new one. But it takes years to process a permit. A recent California law changed the timeline and beginning in 2025, companies will need to apply two years before their expiration date and that may not be enough time.

California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) acknowledged that there are many facilities too close to homes and schools. Decisions made by governments and private industry have resulted in disadvantaged communities bearing the brunt of environmental harm according to the agency’s prepared response: “This is not fair, and we as a State have a lot of work to do to untangle and fix the damage that has been done.”

September 30th of each calendar year, auto shops are issued a Violations Score. Automotive facilities need to submit their audit and make the necessary changes. Based on violations scores, one of three compliance tiers are issued:

Compliance TierFacility VSP ScoreCompliance Tier Requirements
1. AcceptableLess than 20No additional regulatory requirements
2. Conditionally AcceptableEqual to or greater than 20 and less than 40Subject to third-party auditing requirements outlined in California Code of Regulations, title 22, section 66271.56
3. UnacceptableEqual to or greater than 40Subject to permit denial, suspension, or revocation pursuant to California Code of Regulations, title 22, section 66271.57

Facilities in the automotive industry can best protect their brand and gain popularity with customers by promoting pollution prevention policies that implement solutions for hazardous waste previously destined for local trash disposal locations.

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