Patrolling Academia

Colleges and universities almost universally support environmental goals and initiatives for industry at large. But they haven’t always walked the talk when it comes to their own laboratories, air emissions, and water conservation practices.

In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) launched a college and university initiative designed to improve environmental compliance by institutions of higher learning, particularly those located in non-attainment areas such as the northeast and mid-Atlantic.

“This wasn’t so much a matter of targeting colleges and universities as it was a decision to focus on priority areas,” said Margaret Bagnoli, national liaison for colleges and universities with the USEPA.“Any kind of industry facility that located within these priority areas was likely to be inspected. Colleges and universities in these areas were among those being inspected.”

“There has been more aggressive enforcement (against colleges and universities) on the east coast,” said Norman Van Houten, Ph.D., president of the College Health and Environmental Safety Society at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.“But now it is spreading across the rest of the country.”

The crackdown has focused primarily on issues related to waste management, air emissions, and clean water. Numerous violations have been uncovered since 1999. Following are a few examples.

  • Following an inspection in May of 2000, the USEPA fined the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass) $262,700 for violating the federal Clean Air Act. According to inspectors, UMass was operating a variety of devices that were emitting air pollutants, including solvent degreasers, boilers, an automobile painting booth, and a gasoline station. These and other violations resulted in excessive releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the main component of smog.

  • In December of 2003, Columbia University and the EPA settled a 2002 complaint related to hazardous waste requirements. Columbia would pay a civil penalty of $100,000 and carry out three supplemental environmental projects (SEPs). These included implementing an environmental management system, improving chemical inventory tracking procedures, and developing a manual on best management practices and regulatory guidance for high schools.

  • In March of 2004, Central Connecticut State University in New Britain agreed to pay a $31,250 penalty and conduct an environmental project worth another $93,750 in New Britain to settle charges by the USEPA that it violated federal hazardous waste and clean water laws.

  • Self-Auditing
    Many, if not all, of these penalties could have been avoided if the college or university had taken advantage of the USEPA’s voluntary audit policy. Issued in 2000, the policy says that when violations are found through voluntary environmental audits or efforts that reflect a regulated entity’s due diligence in the form of systematic efforts to prevent, detect, and correction violations, the USEPA will not seek gravity-based penalties and will generally not recommend criminal prosecution against an organization if the violation results from an employee’s unauthorized criminal conduct.

    For example, Temple University conducted a self-audit and voluntarily disclosed and corrected environmental violations at 10 campuses in 2003. “EPA’s self-audit policy helps institutions like Temple University protect the environment by recognizing violations and taking action to correct them,” said USEPA Regional Administrator Donald S. Welsh.

    Among the violations discovered and corrected were the failure to have a risk-management plan for chlorine used and stored at the main campus swimming pools; operating three gas-fired burners without a permit at Sugarloaf; and the failure to prepare a spill-prevention control and countermeasure plan to prevent and minimize oil spills, as required by the Clean Water Act at a number of locations on various campuses.

    By disclosing and then correcting these and other violations voluntarily, Temple saved $285,200 in penalties, according to a USEPA statement.

    Defining Responsibilities
    Without conceding that the inspections conducted and penalties leveled may have taken educational institutions by surprise in recent years, the USEPA appears to have begun to develop more definitive information about the specific environmental protection responsibilities of colleges and universities.

    According to a profile of the college and university sector available on the USEPA’s Website (, the greatest opportunities for environmental improvement lie in reducing air emissions, managing and minimizing waste (including hazardous waste), conserving water, and improving water quality. Indeed, the lion’s share of USEPA enforcement actions against educational institutions fall into these categories.

    “We’re also trying to alleviate the burden on college and university laboratories,” said Bagnoli. “The Office of Solid Waste is currently reviewing public comments on a proposed rule that aims to modify hazard waste regulations, but only for college and university laboratories.”

    Bagnoli went on to note that that existing rules developed for industry do not fit colleges and universities.

    In October of 2006, the USEPA announced that it would develop a compliance assistance center for colleges and universities in cooperation with the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). The center will provide resources to help schools better understand and comply with environmental laws.

    “The name of the center might be misleading,” said Bagnoli. “NACUBO, which received a grant to develop the center, and USEPA are building more of an educational environmental resource center. It will focus on not just on environmental compliance but also on other issues such as sustainability.”

    While the USEPA as well as state departments of environmental protection have begun to realize how colleges and universities differ from industry at large when it comes to environmental compliance, it is unlikely that enforcement priorities will lessen. In coming years, colleges and universities will need to bring themselves into compliance with environmental law. That’s the hard news. The good news is that the USEPA has begun to communicate just what kinds of standards colleges and universities will have to meet.

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