EPA Cracks Down On Campuses to Clean Up
LINCOLN UNIVERSITY, Pa.
A new kind of SWAT team is surfacing on campuses that can ruin even the toughest college president’s day.
The special weapon? Environmental law. The special tactics? Big fines.
If the hunt uncovers pollution violations, the price tag can rival the impact of a drug bust, a tax audit or even an FBI sting.
A van with federal government license plates rolls onto campus. Compared to what’s in store, an Internal Revenue Service audit or a drug raid is child’s play for today’s crisis-hardened college administrators.
When that innocuous-looking government van rolled through Lincoln University last September, few on the tiny, rural Pennsylvania campus realized that the pollution-control equivalent of a SWAT, or Special Weapons And Tactics, team, was descending on the school. By the time the smoke cleared, the nation’s oldest historically Black university, founded in 1854, had the dubious distinction of being the first HBCU to wear the polluter label.
Lincoln joined the growing ranks of colleges and universities to be cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to comply with federal pollution control laws. In the last five years:
n Yale paid a $69,000 fine in 1995 after being cited for mishandling and mislabeling hazardous chemicals. As a result of the enforcement action, the school also agreed to invest $279,000 in environmental programs on campus and in New Haven, Conn.
n In 1998, Boston University paid $253,000 in fines and spent $500,000 on community projects to settle alleged violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Clean Water Act.
n In 1998 and 1999, the University of Hawaii was fined $1.8 million after an Environmental Protection Agency’s Region IX inspection team found hazardous chemicals buried in the basement of the main chemistry building on the Honolulu campus and other material discarded elsewhere.
But Lincoln was one of two HBCUs — the other was Howard University in Washington, D.C. — to be hit with the EPA’s new enforcement hammer. Howard University was given a clean bill of health by inspectors, who said they found only minor problems with recordkeeping on the campus.
The EPA has followed up on a year-old pledge to add colleges, universities and other elements of higher education to its list of polluters that need watching.
In May 1999, Samantha Fairchild, enforcement chief for the EPA mid-Atlantic region, warned that the agency would be going after polluters in academe.
“Higher education institutions are as much a part of our regulated community as are business, industry and government facilities,” she said in a statement. “They must comply with all state and federal environmental laws. If they don’t, they are subject to enforcement penalties.”
The goal of the initiative, she said, is “to ensure protection of the environment, and the health of students and others living on or near campuses.”
“We expect colleges and universities to be role models for environmental behavior. Unfortunately, this is not always the case,” Fairchild says. One of the obstacles she and the rest of the environmental bureaucracy face is recalcitrance within academe to accept that it is part of the rest of the world.
While the big schools could arguably afford a big-ticket federal enforcement hit, schools like Lincoln bruise more easily, according to environmental compliance experts. “And therein lies the dilemma for HBCUs,” says John DeLaHunt, environmental health and safety manager for Colorado College.
“The benefit to being a really small school is that they don’t make a lot of waste. The other side of that coin is that they don’t have anybody to manage it either,” he told Black Issues just before delivering a presentation on environmental health and safety in small colleges at the 18th annual College and University Hazardous Waste Conference last month.
He noted that schools are given a choice: Stonewall environmental enforcement and face tough fines, or get ahead of the curve by acknowledging your environmental problems before the enforcers arrive and get compliance assistance.
In exchange for reduced penalties for Clean Water Act violations, the University of the District of Columbia agreed in 1998 to perform testing in a local creek and develop a compliance promotion project for spill prevention, control and countermeasures requirements.
Getting ahead of the EPA can also mean savings. Delaware State University’s upgrades to their cooling, heating and control systems have resulted in an annual energy and operational cost savings of more than $648,000.
DeLaHunt says that one of the big problems for small schools is overcoming the tendency to ignore pollution problems. The typical small college administrator “is predisposed to the ostrich mentality. But in this game you can put your head in the sand all you want. You’re still going to get hit by that truck,” he says.
Lincoln agreed to the biggest fine of the mid-Atlantic schools under scrutiny.
Lincoln agreed to pay a $46,000 fine to settle two EPA charges. The first was that university officials mismanaged gasoline and other fuels so badly that ground water was threatened with contamination. The second charge revolved around taking care of 400 tons of contaminated soil that was allegedly excavated and illegally stockpiled next to the removal site.
In addition to the fine, the school has to pay for correcting the problem with the installation of monitoring systems and the removal of contaminated soils. The pollution episode also has fattened the school’s $14 million annual budget with a new line item: environmental remediation and monitoring.
Lincoln’s episode is an example of what lies in store for small institutions, says Gail Hall, an environmental health and safety manager at Boston College. She says that it has been her experience that the EPA inspectors will nit-pick on even the smallest schools. “Your spill prevention containment and control plan had better address everything, right down to the cooking oil in the snack bar,” she says.
In addition to being vigilant about the items that could become environmental landmines, Hall and DeLaHunt say schools should consider purchasing pollution liability insurance. That kind of policy would typically cost $10,000 for liability of up to $1 million for a three-year period, according to Scott A. Britt, a managing underwriter for ECS Underwriting Inc., an Exton, Pa. firm. He says that he has seen a surge in such policies in the past five years and expects to see even more.
It may be difficult to envision Lincoln, with its small rural campus in Oxford, Pa., as environmentally troublesome. But the crackdown is here, Hall says. “Small colleges, be afraid; be very afraid,” she says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com