The EPA on Campus
Intensified efforts to enforce environmental regulations are prompting colleges and universities to take action on compliance
In the last four years, many of the nation’s colleges and universities have learned hard lessons about compliance with environmental regulations, but they have much more to learn.
In 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a program designed to shore up a pattern of regulatory compliance violations uncovered during inspections. In the ensuing four years, the agency's efforts have intensified, and the initiative targeting colleges and universities has spread to at least four other EPA regions.
The EPA is using a carrot-and-stick strategy — compliance guidance backed by enforcement — to bring more campuses into compliance with regulations that once were applied largely to industry but increasingly are enforced in higher education.
“People are being exposed and their lives put at risk — students, faculty, the maintenance staff and others in that environment,” says Theresa Ippolito of EPA’s region 2 in New York City. “We’re trying to get [universities] to understand, ‘It’s your own people you’re exposing.’ ”
And the nation’s higher education facilities are not the only ones in the EPA’s crosshairs. Hospitals, school districts and municipal departments of public works also are coming under greater scrutiny. For more information on enforcement in these areas, see “Moving Off Campus."
While the EPA’s efforts began four years ago, the last year has seen a flurry of activity on campuses, largely in the Northeast. Recent actions include these:
University of Massachusetts. The university in July agreed to a settlement for alleged clean air violations at its Amherst campus. It will pay a $40,000 fine and implement an environmental management system at its garage. The investigation was launched in May 2000 by EPA’s region 1, which includes Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. The violations turned up in the inspection included: fueling vehicles at a gasoline fueling station without a properly operating vapor recovery and control system; use of coatings in the vehicle repair shop that exceeded limits for volatility; and failing to keep records of degreasing operations.
Manhattan College. EPA’s Region 2 office — which includes New York and New Jersey — filed a complaint in July against the college in the Bronx, New York, seeking a penalty of $111,119 for alleged violations of hazardous waste regulations. The hazardous waste involved includes mercury, arsenic, spent solvents and paints, used fluorescent lamps, used computer monitors, and other waste generated by or used in the college’s print shop, labs and maintenance facilities.
Delaware State University. Also in July, EPA’s Region 3 office cited the university in Dover, Del., for inadequate measures to prevent oil spills from on-campus petroleum tanks and proposed a penalty of $22,181. The agency also cited the university for improperly storing hazardous waste without a permit and seeks a penalty of $20,250. Region 3 includes Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
Pratt Institute. The institute, with campuses in Brooklyn and Manhattan, N.Y., faces a $301,000 penalty from EPA in Region 2 for alleged violations of hazardous waste regulations. Violations include: failing to determine whether the solid waste it generated constituted hazardous waste; storing the waste improperly; treating and disposing of the waste without having the necessary permit; failing to keep containers of hazardous waste closed; and failing to regularly inspect its waste storage areas.
Colleges and universities represent attractive targets for EPA inspectors because of the sprawling and complex array of activities and materials that exist on many of the nation’s campuses.
“The nature of college and university campuses is that they are really a conglomeration of small businesses,” Ippolito says.
A survey of inspections in Region 1 revealed the most common campus problems: hazardous-waste violations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA); noncompliance with federal Spill Prevention Cleanup and Countermeasures (SPCC) regulations; and improper permits for oil storage and air pollution.
The initiatives in several regions generally involve a three-part effort: environmental assistance to campuses trying to improve compliance efforts; enforcement in the form of inspections; and voluntary self-audits. These audits allow facilities to inspect their own operations and report findings, including violations, to the EPA.
To date, 170 campuses have participated in the self-audit program in region 1, says Peggy Bagnoli, co-lead for Region 1’s colleges and universities initiative.
“They didn’t want the EPA coming in,” Bagnoli says. “They wanted to self-disclose. We don’t have the resources to inspect all 335 schools (in the region), but you don’t want to be the next one on that list.” The self-audit process offers financial benefits to facilities.
“The fine is going to be much less if they come to us with the violation, rather than having us find it during an inspection,” she says.
The Challenge, Old and New
While colleges and universities understand the need for compliance with environmental regulations, many also have concerns over their ability to ensure full compliance, given the limited resources and the size and complexity of campus operations. EPA officials acknowledge that many campuses are in the early stages of compliance.
“Generally, colleges and universities don’t know where to go with questions, and they don’t have a point person,” Bagnoli says.
Nonetheless, EPA officials say colleges and universities have been responsive to efforts to increase compliance to environmental regulations. Many have taken advantage of Web sites and conferences that outline proactive, low-cost steps that facilities can take toward compliance. And there are signs of progress. A survey of colleges and universities in Region 3 in August 2000 found these results:
- 50 percent of schools contacted either already have made or plan to make changes to increase compliance with environmental regulations.
- 39 percent say they have reduced their hazardous waste generation.
- 34 percent have reduced their use of toxic materials.
- 31 percent have reduced their overall energy use.
Building on such findings, EPA officials say they will continue pressing the issue.
“We go out and we still find violations of the laws, and we know there is still work to be done,” says Catherine King, environmental protection specialist in region 3. “They have a lot of work to do to get them where they need to be.”