Kingston, R.I. -- April 5, 2001 -- The University of Rhode Island and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reached an agreement that allows for $550,000 of an $800,000 settlement to be applied toward environmental upgrades and improvements on the Kingston campus and in one local community.
URI will apply $300,000 of the penalty to construct a new state-of-the-art hazardous waste holding facility and $250,000 toward a wastewater treatment program in North Kingstown to address coastal water quality concerns in the area of historic Wickford Village. Although the settlement requires a full comprehensive environmental audit of the Kingston Campus, the University has agreed on its own to undertake a full environmental audit on all four campuses.
URI, like comparable major research institutions, engages in a broad range of laboratory and research activities involving small quantities of hazardous waste materials that require chemical, biological, and pharmaceutical waste management programs. While not involving quantities comparable with industrial applications, the legal responsibilities to comply are the same.
"It is important to note that, with the exception of an art studio at the dairy barn location, which has been remediated and closed, there is no evidence from the EPA inspection findings of any environmental damage to the campus," stated J. Vernon Wyman, assistant vice president for business services. "There is also no evidence from the inspection of any adverse health effects to any people," he added.
Test results show no contamination of groundwater. Where technical or material deficiencies were disclosed during the EPA inspection process, the University took immediate steps to remedy them. URIs safety and risk management personnel responded appropriately to each inquiry.
In fact, prior to the visit, the University was already engaged in progressive on-site measures to improve the way in which the disposal of hazardous materials is handled and to ensure environmental compliance in all areas.
The agreement comes nearly four years after EPA conducted a compliance inspection at the Kingston Campus (June 10 and June 11, 1997, with subsequent visits on June 19, June 26 and December 5 of that year), as part of a Region I comprehensive review of institutional compliance with federal environmental regulations conducted at hundreds of public agencies, colleges and universities.
As a result of that inspection, EPA cited URI for violations that fall into four broad categories under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). Specifically, the nature of the violations include technical reporting and permit compliance, chemical waste materials handling, the use of a sink in an art studio located in a former dairy barn, which drained into a dry well; and the improper storage of transformers.
"The University is aware of and responsive to environmental regulations and concerns in its daily operations," said Wyman. "We have appropriate professional service support to our chemical waste collection and disposal program, and good environmental engineering consultation and staff support to our overall health/safety and compliance responsibilities.
"Through the multi-media inspection, it became clear that we needed to exercise even greater diligence in compliance, and invest even more heavily in training and resources," added Wyman.
A process to invest in personnel and training for the Department of Safety and Risk Management had already begun prior to the EPA inspection, including increased expenditures for the hazardous waste removal services, with an annual budget of about $300,000.
The safety and risk management area had been identified by the University prior to the EPA visit as an area in need of additional resources. Since the EPA inspection, the University has invested about $350,000 annually in the safety and risk management area to increase the staff from one full-time and two part-time positions, to six full-time professional staff positions.
URI also invested $100,000 in a computer based chemical inventory system that identifies when chemicals have aged and need to be removed, tracking chemicals from purchase through disposal to reduce the amount of chemicals used.
In addition, said Wyman, although individual laboratory faculty instruct students on the proper use, labeling, storage and disposal of chemicals and waste products, URI has established a new one credit course in the chemistry department for all incoming chemistry students in order to standardize the approach to training for personal and environmental safety. More than 500 faculty, staff, and students have been trained since the inspection in the proper purchase, handling, labeling and storage of chemicals.
"The agreement with EPA for the majority of the civil penalty to be used for positive environmental initiatives is a responsible approach by the agency,
one that will allow us to continue to build on the improvements we've been making over the past several years," said Wyman.
As an example, the new state-of-the-art hazardous waste holding facility, contracted at $334,000, will be constructed on a site off of Flagg Road, the only property associated with the University's Kingston Campus that is not over the Chipuxet groundwater aquifer and recharge area. The University's and Kingston's water supplies are drawn from the aquifer.
The new facility will replace the current chemical waste holding facility, presently in a concrete structure south of Rte. 138. The facility, which serves the Kingston Campus, is an approved secure site for the collection and short-term (less than 90 days) storage of waste chemicals prior to their removal from the campus by a qualified waste disposal vendor.
The environmental improvements recommended by URI to EPA are made possible through the Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP), a program accepted by the EPA to improve the environment, based on proposals from individuals and companies being penalized. EPA selects the SEP projects and sites that are allowed to go forward and the SEPs are considered as credit against the organizations total penalty.
The University was also selected from among five other universities in 1998 by the Pfizer Research Facility, Groton, CT., with the EPA's support, to participate in a SEP involving the development of a laboratory chemical management program. The program, now completed, will serve as a model for other colleges and universities in New England and around the country. The management program and training module have been used to train over 500 faculty, staff, and students in the proper purchase, handling, labeling and storage of chemicals.
The University's safety and risk management staff worked closely with the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and with numerous faculty members from chemistry, biochemistry and pharmacy to establish the model program. Laboratory personnel have been provided with kits which contain a manual and spill clean up materials to assist them in complying and the safety and risk staff conduct regular lab inspections to ensure compliance.
The EPA launched an enforcement initiative in 1993 targeted to public agencies and made it clear in 1996 that it was placing focused attention on public agencies, colleges and universities in Region I for comprehensive compliance reviews. The University of Rhode Island was one of several institutions EPA visited early in its Region I review process in June 1997, at a time when it was also inspecting other public agencies in Rhode Island, including the Department of Transportation.
Since the enforcement initiative began, EPA has filed more than 255 cases against public agencies, colleges, and universities. Among them, Boston University was fined $750,000 and the University of Hawaii was hit with the largest EPA university fine ever, $1.7 million. In Rhode Island, the Department of Transportation was fined $800,000 and Brown University was assessed at $750,000.