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EPA, MIT Reach Agreement over Violations

By Dana Levine


MIT agreed on Wednesday to pay $150,000 in fines to the Environmental Protection Agency and has announced a $405,000 series of environmental improvement programs.

These initiatives will include web-based safety education and collaboration with teachers from Cambridge public schools.

An EPA inspection in May 1998 showed that MIT laboratories violated several environmental regulations, including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act’s hazardous waste requirements, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. Although the violations did not cause any actual harm to the environment, the EPA levied several fines.

Jamie Lewis Keith, the managing director for environmental programs and risk management senior counsel, said that most of these violations involved the storage and disposal of hazardous chemicals and record keeping issues. “The regulations are very detailed about the labels that need to be on containers. ... If you look at the number of labs, 2,200, the number of violations wasn’t too great,” she said.

Violations common at universities

Katherine Smith, a senior enforcement counsel with the EPA, said that many universities do not meet EPA regulations for waste management. She described MIT’s level of violations as being “in the middle of the pack,” but said that a recent inspection at Harvard revealed no environmental offenses.

“We’ve been finding violations at a lot of universities. A lot of the violations seem to stem from institutional issues,” she said. “At a factory, you have a few inspectors monitoring the waste coming from a few process lines.” At MIT, the people who are required to deal with toxic waste are much more varied and less experienced.

“At MIT, you have over 2,000 laboratories. You have a whole host of chemicals, some of which are obscure,” Smith said. A university has a decentralized department system, which makes it difficult to maintain environmental accountability.

However, these violations are still severe, even if they do happen frequently and for obvious reasons. “A toxic chemical coming from MIT is the same as a toxic chemical coming from a factory,” Smith said.

Institute addressed issues quickly

Shortly after the EPA released the results of their inspection, MIT began to take measures to correct the alleged violations. The Institute hired Keith in July of 1999, creating a senior-level management role to deal with environmental compliance issues.

MIT also created the Institute Committee of Environmental Health and Safety, which is chaired by Keith and Vice President and Dean for Research J. David Litster. This committee will determine the appropriate training and monitoring procedures for each of the Institute’s laboratories.

Keith contacted the EPA and attempted to determine which kinds of issues led to environmental violations. “We collaborated with the EPA’s University Compliance Support Group, and we asked them which areas universities really need the most help with. They said that regulatory training was a major problem,” she said.

MIT creates web-based training

In order to improve the level of environmental safety education, MIT created a web-based interface which allows the generation of customized training modules. By selecting a series of options, a student or faculty member may create a custom training program which teaches him the necessary information.

Litster said that all people who handle chemicals will require some sort of training. “I was trained in February in the appropriate use of chemicals in laboratories,” he said. “There is some training that almost everyone who works in a lab will have to undergo.”

New computer technology will allow MIT to continuously share data with EPA inspectors. Keith said that when a laboratory conducts an internal inspection, it will be able to input information into a computer similar to a Palm Pilot. The information will then be relayed to the EPA, who may record and analyze it.

Other environmental initiatives

The Institute aimed not just to comply with regulations but to create new environmental initiatives. The annual report of MIT’s Environmental Programs Task Force described several new initiatives that were implemented in recent years.

The Copy Technology Centers increased recycled paper use from one percent of white paper to 95 percent, and overall use of recycled paper rose to 68 percent in one year.

At the same time, on-campus recycling programs also expanded from the recycling of paper to the processing of a wide variety of materials. Keith said that MIT is trying to implement more environmentally sustainable education in its core curriculum.

Collaboration with local schools

One of the upcoming environmental projects will involve collaboration with local school teachers. Three teachers from Cambridge public schools will come to MIT during the summer to conduct environmental research for up to four weeks.

Over the year following this fellowship, these teachers will collaborate with a graduate student or advanced undergraduate to develop experiments which can be performed in the classroom. The teachers will then present these curricula to their classes.

Matthew T. Garner, a staff member for the Center for Environmental Initiatives, said that this program will improve on relations by having MIT help Cambridge students.

“What MIT is good at is research. We can add value to the research by helping researchers to get the word out about their research,” Gardner said.

This summer, the Center will select the teachers who will participate in this program. Although this will initially last for two years, Gardner hopes that the collaboration will continue. “My intention is that this is not going to be a one-shot deal,” he said.

EPA impressed with initiatives

Smith said that the EPA was impressed by the steps that MIT took to correct the problems. “The response that they took was ideal from my perspective. [Executive Vice President] John Curry said that MIT would get right on it, and they did,” she said.

Although the EPA’s regulations stipulate that violations must be punished by fines, the monetary amount of a fine may be lowered if an organization complies with EPA suggestions. “MIT got a big reduction for cooperation,” Smith said.

Increased regulation may up costs

Some members of the MIT community have expressed concern that the new regulations will put a substantial financial burden on research laboratories. “Where I see the problems coming is that the labs and centers might have to hire additional people to deal with the safety issues. These positions can’t be paid for by research grants. It might well be that there need to be some funding increases,” Litster said.

The Department of Health and Human Services had a budget of $70 million for fiscal year 2000, up over $10 million from five years earlier. “The business of regulation is a growth industry,” Litster said.