Today: Dottie's Oily Inheritance

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Apr 29, 2013

Dear Tom and Ray:

Back in the '80s, when there wasn't anywhere he knew of to take used oil for recycling, my dad started pouring it into a 55-gallon drum in the garage. Not just oil, but anything sort of like it: transmission fluid, brake fluid, you name it. That drum filled up long ago, and it's still there! Other than leaving it in place for eternity, what's the best thing to do with it?

-- Dottie

TOM: Wow. Your dad left you a 55-gallon drum of waste oil. I'm going tell my ex-wife never to complain again about that lousy, chipped tea set her mother left her.

RAY: Do you live anywhere near that big nuclear waste facility in the Rocky Mountains, Dottie?

TOM: Actually, it shouldn't be very hard to dispose of. But it's not easy, either.

RAY: Most states have strict regulations about how you can transport and dispose of waste oil. And they'll only license certain companies, that meet the qualifications, to handle waste oil properly.

TOM: "Properly" means, first, not spilling it, because a single gallon of spilled oil can contaminate a lot of ground water. And second, safely delivering it to someplace where it can be recycled -- most often burned as heating fuel in a waste-oil furnace.

RAY: So, first you're going to have to check with your state's department of environmental affairs and find out what the rules are.

TOM: Based on what you learn, you'll probably have to call a licensed waste-removal company to handle this.

RAY: If what's in the drum is just waste oil (like motor oil and transmission fluid), they'll come and pump it out of your drum and cart it away for, most likely, between $100 and $200. Not too bad, right?

TOM: But here's the bad news: If there's brake fluid in there -- you say there is -- it's no longer considered just "waste oil." It's considered a "federal hazardous waste," and, by federal law, it has to be handled much more carefully.

RAY: If the waste oil is mixed with brake fluid, the stuff can no longer be burned as heating fuel. There are chlorines in brake fluid that are poisonous to humans when burned, and a small amount of brake fluid can contaminate an entire barrel of otherwise reusable oil.

TOM: For that reason, it has to be handled differently -- usually shipped somewhere for safe processing -- and that increases the cost to you.

RAY: And here's the other bad news: You can't just lie about it and say there's no brake fluid in there. Licensed carriers will test a sample on the spot, to figure out if they have to treat it as waste oil or hazardous waste. If it's hazardous waste, youprobably looking at more like $300-$500 to have it taken away.

TOM: But you really should get it done, Dottie. And the sooner, the better. Because if that barrel ever rusts out and starts to leak, then you've got your own little EPA superfund site, and the costs of cleanup only go up from there -- sometimes exponentially.

RAY: Start by going to the website of whatever department in your state deals with environmental protection. Or call. If you're prohibited from transporting it yourself, they should be able to give you a list of companies that are licensed to cart away waste oil and hazardous waste.

TOM: Call a few of them and shop around for a good price. Let them know over the phone that there may be brake fluid in the oil so you can get an accurate price quote.

RAY: Then bite the bullet and get rid of the stuff. And don't forget to say, "Thanks, Dad" as you write the check.

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