Routine inspections at laboratories have found a pattern of hazardous waste management problems in recent years. EPA has discovered chemicals forgotten in university stockrooms for decades, a research lab with wastes in damaged containers, some labeled “unknown”, and a hospital storing a chemical at almost twice the temperature at which it could explode. Improper disposal of waste is also common.
Laboratories in colleges and universities, industrial facilities, and medical research centers use a wide variety of chemicals to do a wide range of work. If the chemicals and resulting wastes are not managed properly, they can endanger both laboratory workers and the surrounding community. The most serious of these problems can lead to serious injury or death.
Environmental regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) outline how to manage hazardous waste at laboratories. To improve chemical management, EPA has offered workshops, compliance assistance, and encouraged self-auditing, and, in some instances, has taken enforcement actions.
In September 2004, EPA and the University of California (UC) settled a case resolving 98 violations of RCRA. The university voluntarily disclosed the violations of hazardous waste requirements at 34 of its facilities. The violations involved 4,000 containers of hazardous waste, including ignitable paint, corrosive acid, reactive cyanide, photochemical waste and toxic contaminated waste. UC estimated that it spent $1.78 million and 23,645 staff hours since 2001 completing an environmental audit of 47 university facilities - its campuses, agricultural research stations, medical and veterinary schools and other miscellaneous facilities. EPA reduced the penalties for most of the violations based on the Incentives for Self-Policing: Discovery, Disclosure, Correction and Prevention of Violations Policy (Audit Policy). UC agreed to pay a $9,570 penalty to resolve these violations.
The Agency has made a special effort to reach out to colleges to encourage them to use the Audit Policy. The Audit Policy establishes a framework for the voluntary disclosure and correction of violations in return for greatly reduced penalties.
This Enforcement Alert presents the findings from EPA laboratory inspections and highlights both the dangers and potential enforcement consequences of the mismanagement of hazardous waste. This Alert also highlights recent EPA enforcement actions taken as a result of inspections at universities that chose not to voluntarily disclose RCRA violations.
In September 2004, EPA initiated an enforcement action seeking $238,225 against the Maine Community College system for RCRA violations found at the Southern Maine Community and Eastern Maine Community College campuses by EPA inspectors. Inspectors discovered, among other violations, five containers of waste picric acid stored in a classroom immediately accessible to faculty and students. The waste picric acid had crystallized in one of the containers. The containers were stored on open shelves. EPA inspectors secured the area by restricting access. Within days, Eastern Maine Community College arranged for a contractor to detonate the containers of picric acid on site.