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What prevents someone from dumping drums of poisonous materials in a lot next to your house or next to the building in which you work? How do we know that businesses in our community are handling hazardous substances in a safe manner? While no one can be 100% sure, it is good to know that federal law plays a role in controlling the storage and transportation of hazardous substances.

Specifically, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, more commonly called RCRA, provides what is called a "cradle to grave" control over hazardous waste in the United States. Cradle to grave means that materials are tracked through a "manifest" system from the time they are generated until the time in which they are finally disposed. Manifests are documents that are filled out by generators and haulers of hazardous waste and provide a uniform method for tracking these materials and assigning responsibility for their safe handling.

Under federal law, hazardous wastes cannot be stored on property for any prolonged period unless the storage activity has been approved by the government. The failure to properly obtain government approval can expose an owner or operator of property to substantial civil penalties and to criminal liability as well. In addition to federal regulation, many states are also involved in the regulation of these materials. And, local police departments even have a role in determining whether or not individuals or companies are illegally using or storing hazardous wastes.

If you believe that hazardous materials and hazardous wastes are being improperly stored or improperly used on a nearby property, you should contact the local police department and explain your observations. The police will tell you whether or not this appears to be a problem and they will also inform you of any other government agencies that need to be notified. Vigilance and the willingness to contact authorities are key to insuring that our neighborhoods are free from improper use, storage and disposal of hazardous materials.

Not long ago, one of the nation's largest supermarket chains hired a construction contractor to build a supermarket in Louisiana. That contractor employed the services of a demolition contractor. While the contractor was working on the site, its employees found some canisters in one of the buildings which were going to be torn down. The canisters contained visible markings reflecting that they were poisonous.

What happened next is a prime example of what should not happen when hazardous materials are detected and yet another good reason why neighbors need to be vigilant. Instead of hiring a qualified environmental company to remove these canisters, an employee of the demolition company took them off the property and gave them to a relative. And the relative brought them home.

The canisters indeed were poisonous and the contents leaked, killing the relative.

Ultimately, the Defendant contractor, its president and some of its employees were indicted, and pled guilty to RCRA violations. Specifically, they were found to have violated a provision that provides that one who knowingly treats, stores or disposes of any hazardous waste…without a permit is subject to fines of not more then $50,000.00 per day and imprisonment not to exceed five years. The Defendants were sentenced to five years probation and over $100,000.00 in fines and assessments.

In conclusion, construction contractors have a duty to identify any materials that appear to be suspicious on the job site. And if it turns out that a problem might exist, they must immediately obtain appropriate legal and technical assistance to address the problem.

Illegal disposal and use of hazardous chemicals frequently occurs and in some instances, fortunately not many, the practice can yield lethal results. Homeowners have a duty to be vigilant for the safety of themselves and their families. Immediately report improper activity to the local police department so that appropriate safeguards can be undertaken.

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