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MIT to Develop ‘Virtual Campus’ to Assist Colleges, Universities with EPA Compliance

MIT to Develop ‘Virtual Campus’ to Assist  Colleges, Universities with EPA Compliance

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently agreed to settle a federal environmental case for a total of $550,000 in an action that may provide low-cost pollution control solutions and free anti-pollution guidance to resource-strapped colleges and universities.
While the $150,000 fine is not the largest on record for a college environmental case, the other part of the case — $400,000 for a state-of-the-art Web site — is the answer for small schools that need to cope with the increased anti-pollution vigilance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Once it is installed on MIT’s Internet site, the still-to-be-named page will be similar to a “Dungeons and Dragons” game, but instead of rescuing maidens or battling dragons, the Internet surfer will roam a virtual campus, complete with environmental land mines. With a click of the mouse, the user can open up one of the hazardous waste hot spots and be told how to handle it.
As part of the agreement, MIT will develop a computer-based virtual campus compliance assistance tool intended to help universities and colleges across the nation comply with environmental laws. The virtual campus will address compliance in eight featured areas, including a laboratory, auto and grounds maintenance department, and a 90-day hazardous waste storage area. The Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence, a not-for-profit group of New England colleges and universities that focuses on ways of mitigating the environmental impacts of campus laboratory research activities, will host the virtual campus on its Web site, <>.
MIT officials view the novel approach as a way of sharing their expertise with other institutions.
“Rather than taking a Band-Aid approach that would only temporarily address legal compliance, MIT has designed an environmental, health and safety management system that uses automation technology and a systems integration approach to provide information to the environmental service and oversight groups at the Institute, while preserving the independence of research in labs and centers,” says Jamie Keith, MIT’s managing director for environmental programs and risk management and senior counsel.

Raising environmental consciousness
Currently, when a school is found to be out of compliance with federal rules, the outcome is usually a stiff fine and an expensive remediation program. If a school can discover its problems ahead of the EPA inspector, the outcome can be cheaper, less troublesome and less of a public relations headache.
Many campuses are working to redesign these systems and improve their environmental performance, but progress and trends are difficult to define. Up until now there has not been a tool to measure environmental performance in higher education, according to the preamble to the National Wildlife Federation’s landmark study on the relationship of the nation’s colleges and universities to environmentalism. The study, State of the Campus Environment: A National Profile of Environmental Performance on America’s Colleges and Universities, is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.
The MIT settlement stems from environmental violations discovered during an EPA inspection at the school in 1998. The university was cited for 18 violations of federal hazardous waste laws, along with the federal Clean Air Act and the federal Clean Water Act.
Like scores of other higher education institutions, MIT’s campus was found to have the same kind of nagging environmental problems that could threaten human health if left unchecked. But because it is a resource-rich institution, it had not only the money to fix the problems and pay the fine, it also had the capability to help less well-endowed schools.
The MIT action comes at a time when, coincidentally, environmental consciousness is on the rise at Black institutions, according to environmental scholars. At the same time, environmental enforcement actions are awakening administrators to potential pollution hot spots on campus.
Environmentalism as a topic is creeping into the curricula of HBCUs. According to Howard University biology professor George Middendorf, there are 17 environmental academic programs at 12 HBCUs. That total includes degree programs associated with environmental science at Clark Atlanta, Texas Southern, Xavier and Florida A&M universities.
Middendorf says he also is seeing more student demand for environmental consciousness, noting the growth of the Howard University Environmental Society, a student-driven ecological interest group.
While the dimensions of academic environmental awareness may seem to cover only a meager segment of the HBCU community, it is a good start on a complex problem, says Dr. Robert Bullard, environmental science professor at Clark Atlanta University and one of the architects of the environmental justice movement that has evolved since the mid-1980s. The movement has focused attention on the disproportionate share of environmental hazards facing the nation’s non-White communities.
Dr. Bunyan I. Bryant Jr., an African American professor of natural resources at the University of Michigan, says that the evolution of environmental awareness at HBCUs is overdue, but encouraging, and he says that what’s happening on campuses will be augmented by the assistance MIT’s Web site will provide. “We are all going to have to take environmental protection on campus to the next level. We have to go beyond pointing out the problems. We have to come up with solutions.” 

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