A Guide to the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) Requirements, Process, and Compliance

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is a critical piece of environmental legislation that shapes the way hazardous and non-hazardous waste is managed in the United States. This comprehensive guide offers a deep dive into the key aspects of RCRA, from its regulatory scope and compliance requirements to its enforcement mechanisms and available resources. Readers will gain a thorough understanding of the act's history, its role in protecting human health and the environment, and the specific standards and limitations it imposes on regulated entities. The guide also explores the complex web of monitoring, reporting, and recordkeeping obligations under RCRA, as well as the potential penalties for non-compliance. With a focus on practical guidance and real-world examples, this resource aims to empower developers and environmental professionals to navigate the intricacies of RCRA confidently and effectively, ensuring that their projects not only meet legal requirements but also contribute to a safer, cleaner future for all.


Key Details of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA)

  • Issuing Agency: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Year Established: 1976
  • Last Amended: 1984
  • Statutory Authority: Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
  • Primary Legal Reference: Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Parts 239 through 282

What is the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA)?

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is a federal law that provides a comprehensive framework for the proper management of hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste. RCRA operates within the broader context of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) mission to protect human health and the environment. The primary goals of RCRA are to protect human health and the environment from the potential hazards of waste disposal, to conserve energy and natural resources, to reduce the amount of waste generated, and to ensure that wastes are managed in an environmentally sound manner.1

RCRA was enacted in 1976 as an amendment to the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965. It has been amended several times since, most significantly in 1984 with the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA). The EPA is responsible for administering and enforcing RCRA, in partnership with state and local agencies.2

RCRA achieves its goals through several key mechanisms, including:

  1. Establishing a cradle-to-grave system for managing hazardous waste
  2. Setting standards for waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities
  3. Requiring permits for facilities that handle hazardous waste
  4. Promoting waste minimization and recycling
  5. Providing for the cleanup of contaminated sites3

RCRA applies to all solid waste generated nationwide, with some exceptions for agricultural and mining wastes, as well as certain hazardous wastes regulated under other federal laws.4

What does the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) protect?

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) protects human health and the environment from the potential hazards associated with the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste. By establishing a comprehensive framework for waste management, RCRA aims to prevent the release of hazardous substances into the air, water, and soil, thereby safeguarding these environmental resources.5


Regulated Activities, Entities & Prohibited Substances

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is a comprehensive federal law that regulates the management of solid waste, hazardous waste, and underground storage tanks. RCRA aims to protect human health and the environment by ensuring the proper handling, treatment, storage, and disposal of these materials. The act applies to a wide range of industries and activities, including manufacturing, transportation, and waste management.

Under RCRA, the following activities and substances are prohibited:

  1. Open dumping: The act prohibits the uncontrolled disposal of solid waste on land, as this practice can lead to environmental contamination and public health risks.6

  2. Improper hazardous waste management: Generators, transporters, and treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs) must comply with strict regulations for handling hazardous waste. Noncompliance, such as improper storage, labeling, or disposal, is prohibited.7

  3. Leaking underground storage tanks: Owners and operators of underground storage tanks (USTs) containing petroleum or hazardous substances must prevent, detect, and correct leaks to avoid soil and groundwater contamination.8

  4. Disposal of certain hazardous wastes: RCRA prohibits the land disposal of specified hazardous wastes unless they meet treatment standards or are disposed of in a permitted hazardous waste landfill.9

These prohibitions are essential for protecting the environment and public health from the risks associated with improper waste management and disposal.

Key Sections of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA)

RCRA Subtitle C - Hazardous Waste Management

Subtitle C establishes a comprehensive "cradle-to-grave" management system for hazardous wastes. It requires generators, transporters, and treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs) to comply with strict regulations for handling hazardous waste.10 Key requirements include proper identification, labeling, packaging, transportation, and recordkeeping. Developers must determine if their projects generate hazardous waste and, if so, ensure compliance with Subtitle C requirements.

RCRA Subtitle D - Solid Waste Management

Subtitle D focuses on the management of non-hazardous solid waste, such as municipal solid waste and industrial waste. It establishes minimum criteria for the design and operation of solid waste landfills and promotes the development of state and local solid waste management plans.11 Developers should be aware of state and local regulations based on Subtitle D and ensure proper disposal of non-hazardous solid waste generated by their projects.

RCRA Subtitle I - Underground Storage Tanks

Subtitle I regulates underground storage tanks (USTs) containing petroleum or hazardous substances. It establishes requirements for tank design, installation, leak detection, and corrective action in case of leaks.12 Developers must comply with UST regulations if their projects involve the installation, operation, or closure of USTs.

RCRA Section 7002 - Citizen Suits

Section 7002 allows citizens to file lawsuits against individuals, companies, or government agencies for violating RCRA or against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to perform its duties under the act.13 Developers should be aware of the potential for citizen suits and maintain compliance with RCRA to avoid legal action.

Relationship to Other Regulations & Agencies

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) interacts with various other federal, state, and local regulations and agencies:

  1. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA is the primary federal agency responsible for implementing and enforcing RCRA. It develops regulations, issues permits, conducts inspections, and takes enforcement actions against violators.14

  2. State environmental agencies: Many states have been authorized by the EPA to implement their own hazardous waste management programs under RCRA. These state programs must be at least as stringent as the federal requirements and may impose additional or more stringent regulations.15

  3. Local governments: Local governments may have their own solid waste management regulations and programs, often based on RCRA Subtitle D requirements. Developers must comply with these local regulations in addition to federal and state requirements.16

  4. Other federal regulations: RCRA may overlap with other federal environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act (CAA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA). For example, hazardous waste incineration is regulated under both RCRA and the CAA.17

  5. Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA): EPCRA requires facilities to report information on hazardous chemicals, including those regulated under RCRA, to state and local emergency response agencies.18

Developers must navigate this complex web of regulations and agencies to ensure compliance with RCRA and other applicable environmental laws.


Regulatory Standards & Limitations

The Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) and its implementing regulations establish various standards and limitations to protect human health and the environment from the potential hazards of waste disposal. These standards include:

  1. Hazardous Waste Identification: RCRA defines hazardous waste based on its characteristics (ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, and toxicity) and lists specific waste streams as hazardous.19

  2. Generator Standards: RCRA categorizes hazardous waste generators into three categories based on the amount of waste generated per month: Large Quantity Generators (LQGs), Small Quantity Generators (SQGs), and Very Small Quantity Generators (VSQGs). Each category has specific requirements for waste management, storage, and disposal.20

  3. Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facility (TSDF) Standards: RCRA establishes performance standards and operating requirements for TSDFs, including design and operating criteria, financial assurance, and closure and post-closure care.21

  4. Land Disposal Restrictions (LDRs): RCRA prohibits the land disposal of hazardous waste unless it meets specific treatment standards to reduce its toxicity or mobility.22

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and authorized state agencies enforce these standards through permitting, inspections, and enforcement actions. Violations of RCRA standards can result in civil and criminal penalties.

Monitoring, Reporting & Recordkeeping Obligations

RCRA imposes various monitoring, reporting, and recordkeeping requirements on regulated entities to ensure compliance and transparency:

  1. Hazardous Waste Manifests: Generators, transporters, and TSDFs must use uniform hazardous waste manifests to track the movement of hazardous waste from cradle to grave.23

  2. Biennial Reports: LQGs and TSDFs must submit biennial reports to the EPA or authorized state agency, providing detailed information on waste generation, management, and disposal.24

  3. Recordkeeping: Generators and TSDFs must maintain records of waste characterization, manifests, biennial reports, and other compliance documents for at least three years.25

  4. Groundwater Monitoring: TSDFs must conduct groundwater monitoring to detect any releases from hazardous waste management units and take corrective action if necessary.26

These obligations help the EPA and authorized state agencies monitor compliance, track waste shipments, and respond to potential environmental releases. Failure to comply with these requirements can result in enforcement actions and penalties.

Enforcement Actions & Penalties

The EPA and authorized state agencies conduct inspections and audits to monitor compliance with RCRA:

  1. Routine Inspections: TSDFs are subject to annual inspections, while generators may be inspected every 2-5 years, depending on their generator category.

  2. Targeted Inspections: Facilities with a history of non-compliance or those in environmentally sensitive areas may be subject to more frequent inspections.

  3. Complaint-Driven Inspections: The EPA or state agencies may conduct inspections in response to citizen complaints or information indicating potential violations.

During inspections, regulated entities have the right to be present, observe the inspection, and receive copies of any documents taken by the inspector. They also have the responsibility to provide access to facilities, records, and personnel.

Violations of RCRA can result in various penalties, as outlined in the table below:

Violation TypePenalty
AdministrativeUp to $37,500 per day per violation27
CivilUp to $37,500 per day per violation28
CriminalFines up to $50,000 per day per violation and/or imprisonment up to 5 years29

The severity of the penalty depends on factors such as the seriousness of the violation, the potential for harm, the duration of the violation, and the violator's compliance history and cooperation.

Compliance Assistance & Regulatory Incentives

The EPA and authorized state agencies offer various programs and resources to help entities understand and comply with RCRA:

  1. Technical Assistance: The EPA provides guidance documents, fact sheets, and online tools to help regulated entities interpret and meet RCRA requirements.30

  2. Compliance Assistance Centers: The EPA funds sector-specific compliance assistance centers that provide tailored information, training, and tools for industries such as agriculture, automotive, and healthcare.31

  3. Grants and Loans: The EPA offers grants and loans to support the development and implementation of hazardous waste management programs.

  4. Voluntary Partnership Programs: The EPA's National Environmental Performance Track was a voluntary program that provided regulatory and administrative benefits to facilities with strong environmental records. Although this program has ended, similar state-level programs may still be available.

To learn more about these assistance and incentive programs, regulated entities can visit the EPA's RCRA website32 or contact their state environmental agency for more information on state-specific programs and resources.


Regulatory History & Upcoming Changes

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted by Congress in 1976 as an amendment to the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965. The primary goal of RCRA was to establish a comprehensive federal regulatory framework for managing hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste, from generation to disposal.33

Key amendments to RCRA include:

  1. Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWA) of 1984: Expanded the scope of RCRA to include stricter regulations on hazardous waste management, underground storage tanks, and the land disposal of hazardous waste.34

  2. Federal Facility Compliance Act of 1992: Clarified that federal facilities are subject to the same RCRA requirements as private entities.35

  3. Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act of 1996: Provided more flexibility in the land disposal restrictions for certain hazardous wastes.36

Currently, there are no major proposed rules or pending legislation that would significantly alter the implementation of RCRA. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continuously updates its guidance and policies to improve the effectiveness of the regulation. Regulated entities should stay informed about these changes by regularly checking the EPA's RCRA website and subscribing to relevant newsletters or email alerts.37

Additional Resources

  1. Full text of RCRA and its amendments: https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-resource-conservation-and-recovery-act38

  2. EPA's RCRA Orientation Manual: https://www.epa.gov/hwgenerators/resource-conservation-and-recovery-act-rcra-orientation-manual39

  3. EPA's RCRA Online: https://rcrapublic.epa.gov/rcraonline/40

  4. "RCRA Regulations & Keyword Index": https://www.epa.gov/rcra/resource-conservation-and-recovery-act-rcra-regulations#haz41


  1. "Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Overview," United States Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/rcra/resource-conservation-and-recovery-act-rcra-overview.

  2. "History of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)," United States Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/rcra/history-resource-conservation-and-recovery-act-rcra.

  3. "RCRA's Critical Mission & the Path Forward," United States Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/rcra/resource-conservation-and-recovery-act-critical-mission-path-forward.

  4. "Wastes Excluded from the Definition of Solid Waste," Code of Federal Regulations, Title 40, Section 261.4(a), https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-40/chapter-I/subchapter-I/part-261/subpart-A/section-261.4.

  5. "RCRA Orientation Manual," United States Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/hwgenerators/resource-conservation-and-recovery-act-rcra-orientation-manual.

  6. 42 U.S.C. § 6945(a) (2021). https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/6945

  7. 40 C.F.R. §§ 262-265 (2021). https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-40/chapter-I/subchapter-I

  8. 40 C.F.R. § 280 (2021). https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-40/chapter-I/subchapter-I/part-280

  9. 42 U.S.C. § 6924(d)-(m) (2021). https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/6924

  10. 42 U.S.C. §§ 6921-6939g (2021). https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/chapter-82/subchapter-III

  11. 42 U.S.C. §§ 6941-6949a (2021). https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/chapter-82/subchapter-IV

  12. 42 U.S.C. §§ 6991-6991m (2021). https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/chapter-82/subchapter-IX

  13. 42 U.S.C. § 6972 (2021). https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/6972

  14. 40 C.F.R. §§ 260-299 (2021). https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-40/chapter-I/subchapter-I

  15. 42 U.S.C. § 6926 (2021). https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/6926

  16. 40 C.F.R. § 258 (2021). https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-40/chapter-I/subchapter-I/part-258

  17. 40 C.F.R. § 264 Subpart O (2021). https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-40/chapter-I/subchapter-I/part-264/subpart-O

  18. 42 U.S.C. §§ 11001-11050 (2021). https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/chapter-116

  19. 40 C.F.R. §§ 261.20-24 (2021).

  20. 40 C.F.R. § 262 (2021).

  21. 40 C.F.R. §§ 264-265 (2021).

  22. 40 C.F.R. § 268 (2021).

  23. 40 C.F.R. § 262, Subpart B (2021).

  24. 40 C.F.R. § 262.41 (2021).

  25. 40 C.F.R. § 262.40 (2021).

  26. 40 C.F.R. §§ 264.90-101 (2021).

  27. 40 C.F.R. § 19.4 (2021).

  28. 42 U.S.C. § 6928(g) (2021).

  29. 42 U.S.C. § 6928(d) (2021).

  30. "Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Laws and Regulations." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/rcra

  31. "Compliance Assistance Centers." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/compliance/compliance-assistance-centers

  32. "Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Laws and Regulations." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/rcra

  33. "Summary of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act." Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-resource-conservation-and-recovery-act

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ibid.

  36. Ibid.

  37. "RCRA Online." Environmental Protection Agency, https://rcrapublic.epa.gov/rcraonline/

  38. "Summary of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act." Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-resource-conservation-and-recovery-act

  39. "Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Orientation Manual." Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/hwgenerators/resource-conservation-and-recovery-act-rcra-orientation-manual

  40. "RCRA Online." Environmental Protection Agency, https://rcrapublic.epa.gov/rcraonline/

  41. "Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Regulations." Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/rcra/resource-conservation-and-recovery-act-rcra-regulations#haz

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A Note to Our Readers: We hope this guide is a valuable resource in helping you better understand the RCRA. However, it's not a substitute for professional advice and doesn't cover every scenario. Always consult with regulatory bodies and professionals for the most current advice and project-specific guidance.