I may have discovered some illegal waste dumping. Now what?
October 3, 2007 9:52 PM   Subscribe

How to verify and report potential illegal hazardous waste dumping?

As a hobby, I sometimes take photos of abandoned buildings. A few weeks ago, I went into an old abandoned factory. Inside this place that looks like it was closed down 20-30 years ago, I discovered some brand-new looking sealed barrels that looked very out of place. They looked like the standard hazardous waste or oil barrels that you see if you do a Google image search for “oil barrel” or “hazardous waste”, but I don’t think they are oil barrels. They are blue, if that matters.

I know that it’s none of my business, but I am concerned that they have been dumped there illegally. I have not been able to think of a better reason for brand new sealed barrels to be present in this old place that, based on vegetation growth and decay, obviously doesn't get visited or used often.

My questions are:

What kind of passive equipment can I use to get a better idea of what is inside the barrels? I will probably use a Geiger counter to see if they are giving off any radiation, though I think that it’s highly unlikely to be nuclear waste. Beyond that, I don’t know what else I can do.

Is there somewhere I should report this, and can I do it anonymously?

Any other information or suggestions you can volunteer are welcome and appreciated.

Private messages and questions for clarification to ecoanonymous@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (17 answers total)
I don't know who to report this to. However, I do know that you should make no attempt whatsoever to determine what the contents are, and should assume that they're not only hazardous, but hazardous at a reasonable distance -- and stay away.
posted by davejay at 10:07 PM on October 3, 2007


You say the factories are abandoned, but rarely are any factories or commercial facilities "abandoned." Someone owns the factory. They may be using it for storage. If you would like to find out who owns the factory, go to your county tax assessors office and have them look it up for you.

And really if they are in barrels under cover, they aren't "dumped." I can't find the EPA definition right now, but basically it has to enter the environment in someway. You say these are new, so they aren't doing that.

If they are leaking however and entering an aquifer or a river, contact the authorities. And the authority is your state environmental authority. Alternately, you could call EPA Compliance Assurance and Enforcement Division (this is region 6's Enforcement webpage) they will either investigate or defer to the state agency. You could also fill out this form at the EPA as well.

Really though, EPA really doesn't have the money / manpower for enforcement, so lookup your state enviromental agency and contact thier waste compliance section. Most agency are mandated to investigate any complaints - so the response you get will vary according to your states environmental culture.
posted by bigmusic at 10:32 PM on October 3, 2007

Do you have any reason to suspect that the drums contain hazardous waste? Blue 55-gallon drums are used for all sorts of applications. Do they have any labels on them indicating content? It seems to me that someone is just using that old building they own for storage.
posted by Authorized User at 10:46 PM on October 3, 2007

Don't worry about checking. Call the city, county, state and federal governments. Let them all know you've called each and every one of them. Organizations won't let things slide if they think others may be looking over their shoulder.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:58 PM on October 3, 2007

We could be more help if we knew your location. In California, I'd start by calling the Department of Toxic Substances Control (1-800-69-TOXIC, according to this pdf) and/or the EPA for your region. Ironmouth's point is really smart, to let them all know you're calling each one.

I'd also consider placing a quick call or sending an email to a nonprofit group, ideally one that is local and that deals with hazardous waste issues. (In California, one person I'd recommend is this person from CCAT.) You want someone who knows what's going on in the area -- are there ongoing cleanups? etc. (The regulatory agencies will know this, too, but not all of them are especially ambitious.) The nonprofit is likely not to be interested, and if so, that's fine, but they're dealing with a lot of shady activity and might be able to fit this to something else going on ("we've been wondering what Smith Corp did with those blue barrels") either now or later. It may be worth it to get some independent watchdogs involved. This may sound like some Erin Brockovich fantasy, but in the only brownfield project I've been involved in there was illegal dumping, and it was just luck that the community was small enough that word quickly got back to the right people.
posted by salvia at 11:48 PM on October 3, 2007

bigmusic is absolutely correct. DO NOT ENDANGER YOURSELF FURTHER. DO NOT VISIT THAT SITE AGAIN. I do this for a living---we see people getting hurt all the time because chemical and other hazards aren't always immediately obvious. It could quite well be nothing, but why take the risk?

There are several ways to report this.

1) Call the National Response Center (http://www.nrc.uscg.mil/)

This is the unified chemical and spill first point of contact for most spills at the Federal level in the US. It's most often used for spills, but they would also be able to handle your case. This would activate the US EPA in your area.

2) Call you local fire fighters. Firefighters have the local responsability in the US for initial hazmat response.

3) Call your local EPA office as bigmusic describes above.

4) Call your state office. As this varies quite a lot by state (and even county), you'll need to look this up for yourself.

I'd start at the top and work my way down. Good luck. This may require some persistence on your part, but a call to the NRC should get your ball rolling.
posted by bonehead at 5:42 AM on October 4, 2007

The owners may be the first to notify but who is to know that it is them storing the stuff there? Unless you catch someone doing something obviously illegal it doesn't pay for you to report this to the government. You will most likely be wasting their time and resources. They have to get permission from the owner to get onto the property and most likely hire a consultant to investigate, etc. You will be wasting lots of government money for what could be empty blu barrels.

If/when demolition of the property takes place it will be taken care of then. Any demolition work of industrial property requires reams of hazardous material investigation paperwork.

Anonymous phone calls to the EPA about a possible hazardous waste dumping of a few sealed barrels on private property will most likely lead nowhere.
posted by JJ86 at 5:49 AM on October 4, 2007

They have to get permission from the owner to get onto the property and most likely hire a consultant to investigate, etc.

They don't, technically. They would try to find the owner, but they can enter the property without permission if they feel it's warranted. In this case, if it's a lot of drums they well may.

The EPA would send one of their own investigators. Private consultants tend to get engaged more by the responsible party or the property owners. The US federal government, at least wouldn't use contractors for a case like this. If this has the potential to be a criminal matter, they will want someone on site with police-like powers.

There are pretty strict requirements to document what's kept on site at any facility (if only as emergency contigency plans). These have to be filed federal (and sometimes state) offices. This will be the first thing anyone will check for. If it's harmless, it will get caught quick. I know the EPA would rather check out something like this and find it harmless rather than have it go unreported.
posted by bonehead at 6:07 AM on October 4, 2007

State Department of Environmental Protection and local Solid Waste Disposal Authority (if your County has one) would also be useful and should be responsive (in addition to bonehead's suggestions). Both of these types of agencies usually have investigators that work to track down inappropriately disposed of waste.
posted by jeffe at 8:26 AM on October 4, 2007

...the source of inappropriately disposed of waste.
posted by jeffe at 8:30 AM on October 4, 2007

And on a reread of your question - leaving an anonymous tip with the local police (or federal agency) might get some attention as this is the sort of thing that would interest those watching for terrorist threats.
posted by jeffe at 8:34 AM on October 4, 2007

I would just call the City Environmental Services. And of course, DO NOT touch the stuff!
posted by lamarguerite at 10:39 AM on October 4, 2007

Just a note around "would someone investigate?" -- even if the landowner put it there, you need a permit to store more than a certain quantity of waste for more than a certain length of time. So, maybe they have one and maybe they don't. You may be able to find out on the EPA's Envirofacts webpage, particularly the Enviromapper.

If it doesn't show up there, it might be interesting to try to figure out who owns the property itself. You could look it up on, say, a county assessor's website like this one (but for the county it's in). This all falls in the category of "for your own information," which should happen in addition to calling the authorities.
posted by salvia at 10:40 AM on October 4, 2007

My oblique point above was supposed to be that even if the person who stored it there is the landowner, if they don't have a permit, that might still interest the authorities.
posted by salvia at 10:42 AM on October 4, 2007

Sealed 55 gallon drums on a property does not equal dumping. As mostly everyone else suggests DO NOT attempt to open them. Also they may be completely empty for all we know. If they aren't labeled they should be labeled, but often people forget or the labels come off.

On another note did you have permission to be on this property? If it was one of my sites you'd be looking at trespassing charges.
posted by Big_B at 3:43 PM on October 4, 2007

^ Another reason to get a nonprofit go-between, if you can. "It was reported to us" and all that.
posted by salvia at 4:13 PM on October 4, 2007

Second the "Contact the Fire Department."

Go down to the nearest fire station if you know where one is. Politely and calmly explain your concerns.
posted by drstein at 9:41 AM on October 5, 2007

« Older Circuit Simulator in Java   |   Options for commuting between London and Cambridge... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.