Resolving Unauthorized Waste Disposal Issues

Mistakes happen. Listen as Greg Seifert, Adam Conti and Adam Mehevec of CEC Austin discuss issues that landfills and generators face when they either send or receive unauthorized wastes. They also present common sense strategies for dealing with the unauthorized waste and regulatory concerns.

Podcast Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to CEC Explains, your deep dive into fascinating subjects from the worlds of engineering and the environment, brought to you by Civil and Environmental Consultants. And now from our CEC studios around the nation, this is CEC Explains.

Greg: Welcome. This is Greg Seifert, I’ll be your host as we discuss the issues associated with unauthorized waste disposal at landfills. I’m a principal geologist in CEC’s Austin, Texas office. I’ve been an environmental consultant for more than 30 years, and I have a wide variety of experience helping clients resolve their environmental liabilities resulting from releases to air, water, soil, and groundwater. Today, I’m joined by Adam Mehevec and Adam Conti. Gentlemen, why don’t you introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about your experience. Adam M., why don’t you go first?

Adam M: Thanks, Greg. Appreciate that. I’m a civil engineer with 25 years of experience in the solid waste world. I’m the solid waste practice lead here for CEC in the Austin office. I’ve spent my career doing permitting, operational design and remediation of landfill projects.

Greg: Okay. And Adam C.

Adam C: Hello, I’m Adam Conti. I’m an environmental engineer. I’ve been in environmental consulting for over 10 years. I’ve done everything from due diligence and remediation to air and solid waste permitting. I’ve worked in the DC and New York City metro areas. And now I’m over here in Austin where I support the environmental solid waste and civil site groups.

Greg: Great, fantastic. Well, let’s get down to it. So Adam C., what exactly is unauthorized waste removal?

Adam C: Generally, there are municipal solid waste or MSW landfills. You have your construction, demolition debris, C&D landfills, hazardous waste landfills. Also, you have the generator who ships out the waste, the transporter who transports it to the facility. You’ve got the receiving facility. And then in Texas, you have the TCEQ or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. So landfills are permitted to take specific waste. Be it municipal, solid waste, construction, demolition debris, hazardous waste, industrial nonhaz. And unauthorized waste removal, for example, is when hazardous waste goes to a non-hazardous facility.

Adam M: Yeah, it can be a little more complicated than that. Some facilities can take multiple waste streams, but are filling those in specific portions of the landfill. So they may have a section where industrial waste is allowed and a separate section where municipal solid waste is allowed. And sometimes it’s just as simple as the load ended up in the wrong cell. He should have just been in a different part of the landfill.

Greg: Okay. So Adam C., why, why exactly is this a problem?

Adam C: So different cells are designed differently for hazardous waste. You’ll have more protections. You’ll manage the leachate differently and for municipal or construction, demolition debris. You’re not going to have as much of that design there. Hazardous waste cells are more protective for human health and environment because you need to be able to handle things that are potentially incompatible or reactive because that’s more likely to happen than your typical household trash.

Adam M: And sometimes it’s not just the physical issues. The, all loads are tracked with the manifest system. And the regulators would like to build a follow that load from cradle to grave to make sure that it went from generation to disposal and the right way. And so when you end up with a hazardous load, for example, in an MSW landfill, there’s no way to close the loop on that and show where the load ended up, that it got somewhere where it’s supposed to. So just to get that cleaned up, we ended up having to remove them, even if the load that came in is no more hazardous or toxic than the other waste that’s around it.

Greg: Okay. So I imagine that the regulators would see unauthorized waste disposal as, as a problem. What kind of issues would either the receiving landfill or the generator have Adam M.?

Adam M: So generally the biggest problem is the stable issue, a notice of violation, whenever there’s an unauthorized waste flow that comes into a landfill, someone made a mistake along the way, whether it be on the generation side, the transportation side, or at the landfill. Sometimes it’s a combination of those things. The, so generally the state will come out and want to issue an NOV to one or multiple parties in the group. They also, since, as Mr. Conti mentioned, hazardous waste loads tend to be more reactive, more toxic. We’re not always sure how they’re going to react with the material that’s around them, especially in an MSW landfill. So the state is very interested in getting that material removed before it becomes a problem on a larger scale at the landfill. They don’t want that material to leach down into the leachate for the cell and cause issues with the leachate going forward.

Greg: Adam C., what are some of the other causes of this unauthorized waste disposal?

Adam C: So, as other Adam was saying, it can be a variety of reasons. A lot of times it’s improper waste classification, the waste profile was done incorrectly, or sample results came in later. Sometimes it’s a manifesting issue, sometimes it’s as simple as, the transport came in and just picked up the wrong container. It wasn’t labeled properly. There was poor communication. So again all kinds of things can, can make this happen.

Greg: So the waste ends in the wrong place, in the wrong landfill or in the wrong part of the landfill. So what can be done to address this Adam M.?

Adam M: There’s a couple of options. You potentially could reclassify the waste. The generator labeled it as hazardous when it really wasn’t, they were just labeling that way to be overly cautious. So if you have good sampling and good data on how the material was generated, it could be reclassified to a non-hazardous waste. Same thing. If it’s a class one industrial waste that also may have been done, because they were just trying to be cautious and it could be reclassified to a class two or class three, that’s the simplest for everyone. If that’s a possibility, that’s usually very hard because most generators don’t sample every load of material that leaves their facility. So you’d be relying on historic data and maybe some data from a similar material that was still at the facility. You can also determine that you’re going to leave the waste in place. Depending on the characteristics, it may be fairly benign in the landfill where it is. You could do some sampling to evaluate that and verify that it’s not causing a problem and its current location. And then ask for permission to leave the waste in place. That will almost always get you a notice of violation issued because you now have disposed of an improper material in your landfill. The most common and the third option is to dig the material out and take it to an offsite facility, or even an onsite facility, that is authorized to take that particular material.

Greg: Okay. So to clarify that, that first option where it’s just a paperwork exercise, that’s probably the lowest cost option.

Adam M: Definitely.

Greg: And then if you’re issued a notice of violation, I assume there’s a fine or something associated with that?

Adam M: Very well could be a fit. If it moves on to be an enforcement action, then there would be a fine associated with it.

Greg: Okay. And then the last one sounds expensive to me going out and trying to find it and dig it up.

Adam M: It is. And it’s the cost of that is completely related to how quickly you were notified by the generator that you had an issue, how well your landfill operators track their movements during the day. It’s all about getting the area where the waste is contained into a small box as possible, so that when you go to dig it out, you’re not digging out an acre of landfill cell 20 feet deep. You’d like to get it into a spot that was maybe 40 by 40 and 10 feet deep. So that you’ve got a much smaller haystack to try to find the needle in. 

Greg: If the facility is unable to remove this unauthorized waste, either because they can’t locate it, or perhaps they think it’s too expensive to remove what, what can happen over time?

Adam M: So I’ll start with the worst case. If the material happens to be hazardous, and especially if it’s a listed hazardous waste, as opposed to a characteristic waste, the fill, the landfill could be deemed as containing hazardous material. And the TCEQ could come back and determine that all leachate and other materials that exit from the landfill are also hazardous. So you could end up with the leachate from your facility being characterized as hazardous for the life of the facility and post closure, which would lead to much higher disposal costs.

Greg: So instead of disposing at a local wastewater treatment plant, you would be hauling to a hazardous waste treatment and disposal facility that may be hundreds of miles away from where your landfill is located. So we’re talking about a five-fold or ten-fold increase in the cost of getting rid of leachate from that particular land.

Adam M: Definitely it could, I mean, would easily be millions of dollars over the course of the life of the facility, plus the 30 years of post-closure that you’re still extracting and disposing the leachate.

Greg: Okay, great. Do you have a couple of specific examples perhaps you could walk through? So people will get a deeper understanding of the type of scope we’re looking at?

Adam M: For sure. And I’ll start by saying that most unauthorized waste comes in on Fridays and Mondays. And it’s usually the same cause that people get in a rush late on Friday, and that sometimes leads to them not paying attention early Monday, but a lot of times you’ll see transportation companies will pick up a waste load late on a Friday. They don’t have time to get to the landfill. They’ll drop it off in their yard. Over the weekend. New guy comes in on Monday, gets confused as to which box is which, ends up taking it to the landfill and the people at the scale house don’t pick up on it. And it gets disposed. To answer your question about the scope of digging these things out, what’s really helped recently is most landfills have GPS on their equipment, so they can tell exactly where the dozers and the compactors were at any time during the day. And since we can track every load that comes through the scale house, we know what time the load came to the scale house. We can estimate about how long it took to get from the scale house to the active face, how long it took to get dumped. And then we can look exactly where the dozer was operating and where the compactors were operating at that moment in time, which really helps us narrow
down the location.

The smallest I’ve ever done is if a single roll-off came in. I think we managed to only dig out three roll-offs and send them off site, but it’s been as much as I’ve had a single roll-off that turned into 40 or 50 roll-offs of material by the time we got it removed. And cost-wise these can run anywhere from 50,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Greg: Wow.

Adam C: The problem is that waste will come in and the way a landfill operates is they’ll spread this waste throughout the surface and every evening, or depending on what landfill type of landfill is, they’ll cover it with soil. And the next day they’ll start over again. So you end up with kind of layer cake and you have to track down a needle in a haystack.

Greg: Oh, wow. Yeah, it sounds like it’s a, it can be a real issue. Now we’re sitting here in Texas, so, and I assume it’s, as we’re talking about, it’s an issue in Texas. Is it an issue in other parts of the country?

Adam M: It most definitely is. I’ve done removals and other states. Texas is a little unique because of the way our industrial waste is handled. So in some states you have municipal waste, and you have hazardous waste. And the industrial falls in with the municipal. And Texas, as we have three distinct categories, we’ve got 33% more chance of making a mistake. And especially cause a lot of landfills can take class two and class three industrial waste, but not class one. And so you have the same generators who are sending both class one, class two and class three out. And so it’s very easy for those materials to end up in the wrong place.

Adam C: Adam makes a good point that in Texas it’s complicated enough that even facility operators have trouble figuring out exactly what we’re talking about, where we’re looking to get this material to.

Greg: Can you gentlemen talk about some of the projects that you’ve worked on related to this topic of unauthorized waste removal?

Adam M: Sure. Greg, I’d love to do that, and I’ll leave out the names of the players involved to protect the innocent. But one of the first ones I did was a tank at a refinery that had insulation on the outside. The installation had been painted and that paint contained lead. The facility was removing the insulation and shipping it to an MSW facility. They sent the material off prior to running sampling on it and they, and in fact, they sampled it incorrectly instead of taking a sample of the installation with the paint, someone there decided to just chip off the paint off the insulation, fill a jar full of just the paint and send it off to be analyzed.

It came back hazardous for lead. But we had already received multiple roll-off boxes at the landfill. So by the time we were notified we had probably mixed it in an area that was a hundred by 115 to 20 feet deep. We tried to convince the generator to potentially reclassify the material, but they did not want to explore that option. So we did a very extensive dig out and removed… I think we shipped off 50 or 60 roll-off boxes before it was all said and done. All of that could have been fixed with proper sampling and even some reclassification after the fact. But that’s not the way they wanted to go. We also had one where there was a material, was a listed waste and the generator would come up with what they thought was kind of an ingenious sampling protocol and had classified the material as non-hazardous.

The TCQ later did not agree with their ingenious sampling protocol and reclassified it as hazardous for MEK. That material had gone into landfill. Luckily only a single box had arrived, and we had a very good idea of where we had placed it. So unlike the first example, I think only three or four roll-off boxes were removed from the cell related to that one.

Greg: And so these, when you dig them up and then you transfer them to another facility, and you have to pay the cost of handling those as hazardous waste?

Adam M: That’s correct. So even the stuff that’s adjacent to the hazardous waste that has gotten mixed in, all of that gets shipped to a hazardous waste disposal facility and the transportation and disposal costs on that are, you know, orders of magnitude higher than what it was to come into the current facility. And some of them are really benign. We had a landfill that a roofer was taking shingles off of an old, I think it was an old trailer and brought them in, sampled the shingles and determined that they were class one industrial waste due to the total petroleum hydrocarbon. There’s actually an exemption for that. And we, again, try to get the generator to reclassify, to not be a class one. They did not want to participate in that. So luckily, at that particular facility, we had both class one disposal and MSW disposal. We were able to dig up the shingles and the MSW cell with internal forces and move it to the class one cell. So it was a very inexpensive dig out. We did the whole thing in four or five hours using the site articulating dump trucks and excavator, and didn’t have to bring in a third-party hauler or do any third party disposal.

We’ve also had ones where scale house operators got confused. I had a landfill where they had a brand newscale house operator. Material came in clearly labeled class one. She directed the trucks to the MSW cell by mistake and for about a week and a half, they deposited this material into the MSW cell before it was caught. So we ended up removing the bottom, I think, five to 10 feet of the entire cell. They had just built a brand new cell and they were actually using this material as part of the fluff lift, which is the initial lift that goes above the liner system. So we went in and excavated the entire cell area for about the first five or 10 feet.

Again, luckily there, they had class one disposal at that same facility. So we were able to use site trucks and site excavators. If that had been hazardous material that dig out would have cost in the millions easily.

Adam C: I’ve been out with Adam a couple of times and some of these unauthorized waste removals, and you’ll learn a couple of things out there very quickly. Waste turns to the same shade of gray and it can be tough to hunt down those pipes, hoses, PPE, shingles, whatever, whatever have you out there. So it’s just another reminder that the GPS equipment can be invaluable, the record keeping, but definitely want to get out there as soon as possible to find the needle in the haystack.

Adam M: Yeah, it does get much more difficult the longer it goes. And unfortunately for most of these, you get notified you have a problem, you identify the area, someone like CEC has to prepare a removal plan, that has to be approved by the TCQ. You have to bid out the work, get a contractor on site. And so normally between six months and a year have gone by between the time that you realize you had an issue and the time that you get out there to actually dig out the material. So like Adam was saying, everything starts to look kind of a light gray color. Your eyes will play tricks on you and things that you should be able to spot very readily will become much harder to find. The way we usually do it is we have the excavator scoop up a load of waste and then kind of waterfall it out of the bucket. So we can see individual pieces of material falling and we’ll build a spot, a drum or a hose or whatever it may be that we’re looking for. And then we can segregate that material into separate roll-off boxes without having to put all of the material that’s in the area and ship it off
for off-site disposal. And you also learn that garbage smells worse coming out the second time than it did going in the first time. And amazingly, somehow roaches live down in the trash and every once in a while, one will fly out at you like a bullet. So you gotta be careful and dodge ‘em when you can.

Adam C: Very glamorous indeed. There’s certainly a level of uncertainty when you’re out there with the roaches looking for some of this material.

Adam M: I actually had a situation where a client sent someone down to watch us do the unauthorized waste removal.

Greg: This person was in charge of reviewing special waste request that came in and they thought it would be a good education to see what happens when things go wrong and the amount of effort that goes into removing one of these. And she was standing next to me, they were digging in the trash and about a two-inch roach came flying out of the trash at about 50 miles an hour, landed right on her neck. And she said, please don’t tell me if that’s a roach. I said, all right, I will not tell you that is a roach, but you probably should knock off whatever it is over your neck. So I told her later it was a leaf and that it was no big deal, but it was, it was a nice roach. It was a monster.

Greg: So we’ve kind of talked about how it happens, the potential cost of it happening. Do you gentlemen have any tips, any recommendations for either for the facilities that ship out the waste or the facilities that receive the waste to try and cut down on this problem?

Adam C: One of the things I’d say is a standard operating procedure for your waste classification, planning for this ahead of time. Throughout the process, communication, labeling are a huge way of avoiding issue.

Adam M: Yeah. And I’ll add in most of the time this is a confusion issue. So when, when haulers come to your facility to pick up a box, don’t just say, Hey, it’s the one out there on the right. Or it’s the green one or stuff. Make sure that the driver understands that the manifest that you have given him, exactly which box that goes with.

Greg: And I think to go out and check with them, make sure the numbers match up on the box and that you are sending the right material will go a long way to prevent these. I’ll also say a lot of these occur because waste gets classified and then people don’t sample it again for a long time. They assume it’s still the same as it was a year ago or longer. And over time, the waste has changed, and it’s gone from being one type of waste to another. So I would recommend you re-sample and reclassify your waste as frequently as you possibly can. Because a lot of these people think they’ve sent one kind of waste out. The TCQ does an inspection at the generation facility, grab samples of their own, analyzes them and determines that the material you’ve been sending out as a class two waste is actually a class one waste. And you have no sampling to refute the one sample that they took. And so now you have to look back at all the places that you sent this material and determine if you’ve got an unauthorized waste issue.

Also for those of you that run landfills, train your scale house people. There’s a lot of turnover in scale houses. New people come in. You’ve got a lot of loads coming in every day, almost all of these, when we look back, there was an opportunity at the scale house to catch the problem before it went into the landfill.
The number on the roll-off did not match the number on the manifest. The manifest said it was a compactor load. It’s a roll-off box. The manifests that it was grazed sludge, it’s a bunch of PPE and drums. Things like that are great opportunities for scale attendance to nip these in the bud. And they do catch a lot of them. And you know, so it’s, it’s somewhat, you know, it’s a terrible job because you, if you let one go, it becomes a huge issue. You may have caught a hundred other ones, but you need to catch them all. But I would, you know, getting trained and senior people as much as possible in the scale house will really help.

Most of the landfills I deal with have cameras at the scales. So the attendants can look into the top of the box. They need to look at that and make sure that it matches up. Some of these are incredibly obvious that they were not the right material. And you, after the fact, it seems really silly that, you know, someone didn’t catch it.

Greg: So I mean, and this issue announced a prevention is, is very much worth a pound of cure. If you’re going to spend your money on this issue, try and spend it up front in proper classification, regular classification, making sure your paperwork’s correct. And making sure that you have people that are trained to detect that when it, when it comes to the disposal facility.

Adam M: Most definitely, and take your time, you know, people get in a rush, they do these all day long, but take that extra five seconds to look and check a number, make sure it’s correct. It could save you a lot of headache down the road because these can get very complicated when, especially if there is dual fault between the generator and the landfill facility, trying to work out, who’s paying for what, and who’s going to manage the removal can, you know, gets lawyers involved and it all gets very expensive very quickly.

Adam C: One thing we like to say is “haste makes unauthorized waste.”

Greg: Thank you for that.

Adam M: So one of the, one of the things I would recommend to people, if you get notification that you may have and unauthorized waste. Take action immediately to stop filling in that area, cover it with either soil or a geo membrane. The regulatory agencies are very concerned about storm water leaching through this material and getting down into the leachate. So you want to do everything you can to give the perception or reality that you have prevented any stormwater from contacting the waste. You’ve not made the problem any worse by running another lift across the area. So even if you’re not sure if you have a problem, I would take action immediately, try to identify the area, get it quarantined off and get it covered and sealed up. It will definitely help you later on when you go to do your removal plan and your ultimate waste removal.

Greg: Well, good. I know I’ve certainly learned something today. I really appreciate both Adam Mehevec and Adam Conti being with us today and sharing their expertise. And if you want to learn more about this topic, there’s a couple of different ways. If you want to learn more about proper waste classification, CEC offers a free Environmental Training Course, which is an introduction to RCRA regulations. There’s one coming up in October and you can register for that at cecinc.com/etc. To learn more about solid waste topics like we’ve discussed here today, check out our webinars series at cecinc.com/SolidWasteWebinar.

Thank you again, gentlemen. Appreciate the discussion.

Adam M: Thanks.

Adam C: Thank you.

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