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Requirement for hazardous waste could be harming the environment

Carol Schmiesing, who retired recently as coordinator of the Kandiyohi County Household Hazardous Waste program, stacks up cans of paint at the Willmar facility. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

WILLMAR -- A state system meant to track minimal quantities of hazardous materials that businesses bring to disposal facilities could be backfiring and actually harming the environment.

Kandiyohi County Household Hazardous Waste officials said they fear some hazardous materials that had been brought to the Willmar facility in the past for proper disposal, are now going to the county landfill.

The results frustrate employees who've worked to keep contaminants, like paint and solvents, out of the landfill. They fear that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's paperwork is having a reverse effect.

"That's my beef with the MPCA," said Jay Baker, coordinator of the county's household hazardous waste program.

The county facility has always done a robust business collecting hazardous waste from households and businesses. In 2008, 72 tons was shipped out for disposal. Last year it dropped to 65 tons.

One of the reasons for that, said Baker, is because businesses that qualify as minimal generators -- producing less than 100 pounds a year -- are now required to fill out an application for an MPCA identification number.

In the past, businesses with minimal waste could bring in their hazardous materials, pay a disposal fee and leave.

Businesses that generate more than 100 pounds a year have always been required to have an MPCA identification number before bringing items to the county hazardous waste facility. Larger generators pay a permit fee.

But requiring minimal generators to get an MPCA identification number "no matter how much waste they generate" has scared some people away, said Baker.

"We've discovered that most small businesses want to avoid being on the MPCA's radar," said Baker in a report to the Kandiyohi County Commissioners.

For the first time since the program started in 1991, the number of minimal generators has dropped, said Carol Schmiesing, former director of the county program, in an interview late last month before she retired.

In the past about 40 businesses participated each year. Last year there were 20.

Business people have complained the state is making it more difficult to "do the right thing," said Schmiesing. "It worked so much better before."

When businesses come with a can or two of left-over paint to dispose of they instead receive a form to fill out. "And we don't see them again," said Schmiesing.

She said the form is too long and asks questions about the business that may difficult for the individual at the counter to respond to, since it's oftentimes a "gofer" employee and not the business owner bringing in the waste.

Forrest Peterson, from the MPCA office in Willmar, said the form isn't difficult to understand and completing it doesn't mean a business will necessarily require an identification number from the state.

The new forms are part of a periodical review of rules and procedures, Peterson said, and filling them out does not cost the business anything and does not trigger any other review process of the business by the MPCA.

"Part of the rationale in this case, is that a large number of small generators can account for a sizable amount of waste, so it was determined there needed to be some record of monitoring it," said Peterson. "Knowing the amount is important."

Like any change, implementation requires education. He said the MPCA is relying on its partners, including county programs, to educate businesses about the new requirement and need for keeping hazardous materials out of landfills.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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