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Do you even have jurisdiction over our university?” The question came from a manager from a large Midwestern university during a forum for education facilities presented several years ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The question might not be representative of all managers in institutional and commercial facilities, but it is indicative of the uphill battle the EPA is waging to educate managers in these facilities about compliance with environmental-protection laws, as well as to enforce those laws.
The effort to bring the nation’s education and health care facilities into compliance shows no sign of letting up since it debuted in the late 1990s. In fact, as federal officials better understand compliance problems, maintenance and engineering managers in these facilities who often most directly manage hazardous materials are likely to see more activity from the EPA.
“We’ve gone through a major effort in the last few years,” says Joshua Secunda, senior enforcement counsel in EPA’s Region 1, who fielded the question regarding EPA jurisdiction. “It also now has the attention of (EPA) headquarters.” That shift also is likely to bolster the efforts of regional headquarters.
Given such developments, managers very soon will need a much fuller picture of all hazardous materials in their facilities, from laboratory chemicals and solvents to mercury-containing equipment such as computer monitors and fluorescent lamps. More importantly, managers will need the resources and support to take action.
Tripping Over Hazards
Facilities in the Northeast — especially in education — came under scrutiny from the EPA starting in the late 1990s when it discovered problems during inspections of other types of facilities.
“We kept tripping over problems at colleges,” he says. Initial response to the EPA among facilities managers and executives — “pushback and anger,” Secunda says — reflected the EPA’s relative inactivity in such facilities until then. More recently, health care facilities have come under scrutiny.
“They saw what was happening to universities and became very proactive,” he says. “It wasn’t unnatural to think that the EPA would start looking there, too.”
The EPA’s compliance activities have employed a carrot-and-stick approach. The carrot is a combination of compliance information and a voluntary self-audit program. An institution signs an agreement with the EPA, vowing to inspect its facilities, and report and correct violations it uncovers. To reward the effort, the EPA agrees to waive or lessen fines for reported violations.
The stick is the threat of fines for violations discovered during EPA inspections. For news on recent agreements and fines, see the accompanying article.
By far the biggest stumbling block for facilities striving for compliance — and the chief area of misunderstanding — is Subtitle C of the Re-source Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Secunda says. The section establishes regulations covering the generation, transport, and treatment, storage or disposal of hazardous wastes. A summary of RCRA violations discovered most often in Region 1 between 1994 and 2003 include the failure to:
- properly manage universal wastes, 84
- provide adequate training or document that personnel received training, 74
- properly identify and maintain a satellite accumulation site, related to signage, secondary containment, labels, waste determinations or training, 60
- properly label hazardous waste, 53
- make formal waste determinations, 51
- maintain all required manifest, exception reports, and land disposal restriction records, 42.
While more institutions understand the need to better management of hazardous waste in and around their facilities, changing age-old management cultures to fully integrate the necessary steps can be challenging.
For example, in large, high-profile educational facilities, the decentralized nature of the organization — and the presence of independent “fiefdoms,” as Secunda calls them, within many of these organizations — often complicates the task of comprehensive environmental management.
“What we found in larger institutions is that they have five or six different ways of monitoring these materials, probably none of which is correct,” he says. Still, some organizations have gone beyond just compliance.
“What is impressive is how many of these schools weave the environmental management process into what they are doing,” he says, instead of treating it as an activity separate from daily operations. One major Eastern university has gone so far as to revamp the way it buys all supplies and chemicals, inspect buildings and maintain building systems and components.
While the EPA continues to enforce laws and encourage self-audits, officials also stress that it is a two-way process that also includes sharing compliance information with facilities. To this end, the agency is providing an expanding array of resources to guide facilities. Among the new resources:
- Region 1 offers its college and university audit summary, outlining its audit policy and detailing common violations.
- Region 1 also offers a hospital assessment tool that walks users through questions on self-assessment and pollution prevention.
- Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) is a searchable database of inspections, violations and enforcement actions.
Also, the agency’s main web site offers information on hazardous materials management, mercury reduction, and compliance suggestions, and it provides links to each region’s web site, which offer region-specific information.
The EPA also is working to tailor existing regulations and inspection mechanisms to better fit institutional facilities.
For example, Secunda is part of a work group to create an “alternate RCRA universe” for colleges and universities. The process is based on comments from facilities managers that “RCRA is not the best fit for us” because of its origins targeting industrial compliance.
Also, EPA and Hospitals for a Healthy Environment are working with the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), which inspects and accredits hospitals, to develop a curriculum for JCAHO inspectors to look harder for problems hazardous-waste-management problems.
“We’re finding hospitals that are getting EPA fines for hazardous waste after JCAHO said it’s okay,” says Janet Bowen, hospital sector lead in EPA’s region 1.
Such actions are sure signs that the agency intends to remain active in pressing the issue of compliance beyond its current borders. Another indication of this attitude is the recent self-audit agreement between EPA’s Region 9 office and the California State University system. See the article below for more information.
Says Secunda, “Anyone who thinks we’re going away now would be making a mistake. There is going to be more activity and in both (the education and health care) sectors.”
EPA on the Offensive
Education and medical facilities remain targets of compliance efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Among the activities in late 2004 are these:
In November, the University of California system completed a $1 million voluntary audit of its nine campuses statewide — where it handles more than 1 million pounds of hazardous waste per year — and reported close to 100 violations of hazardous-waste regulations to the EPA’s Region 9 office. The violations included storage without a permit and missing or unreadable labels on containers. Under the audit policy, the EPA often reduces or waives penalties. In this case, the EPA reduced the university’s penalty to $9,750.
In October, EPA’s New England regional office announced that the Maine Community College System faces more than $200,000 in fines stemming from violations in the storage of hazardous materials at two campuses. The violations, identified during May 2003 inspections, include multiple violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The largest concern focused on several containers of waste picric acid in containers near classrooms accessible to teachers and students.
Finally, in October, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., signed an agreement with the EPA’s Region 2 office to pay $43,087 penalty and carry out environmental projects to settle hazardous waste-violations. The EPA alleged that, among other things, Vassar did not determine waste it generated was hazardous, failed to train staff on hazardous waste management and did not handle the waste to minimize risk.
— Dan Hounsell