Is Your School Next?

Nov. 1, 2001
What you need to know about the EPA's enforcement strategy and how to prepare your school.

Since the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has carried out an aggressive enforcement program designed primarily to ensure that regulated entities are conducting their operations in compliance with environmental laws. Since 1998, EPA regional offices have shifted their enforcement focus from industry and manufacturing to include and, in some cases highlight, colleges and universities.

The logic to EPA's shift may be sound even if the enforcement has been somewhat heavy-handed. Colleges and universities are subject to a spectrum of environmental laws and regulations and have many of the same operations, albeit on smaller scales, as an industrial or manufacturing facility. For example, some campuses have power plants, wastewater-treatment plants, vehicle fueling stations and emergency response teams. Almost all generate wastes in research labs, automotive shops, photography studios, waste incinerators, renovation projects and healthcare facilities. The EPA, Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) regulate all of these activities in some manner, and all present unique environmental compliance challenges.

As a result of compliance inspections of colleges and universities in the past few years, enforcement against these entities, primarily in Regions I, II, III, and IX (see chart on common violations, p. 340), has intensified and become an agency priority.

While each region has taken a slightly different approach to enforcement, the message is the same across the country: comply with environmental regulations or pay penalties. Schools are learning that these penalties extend beyond the actual fines and cost of any follow-up environmental projects. Often, the larger cost is the damage to reputation, endowment and enrollment that can result from an EPA enforcement action and the negative publicity that follows. Understanding the EPA's approach in your region and how to prepare your school is critical.


Traditional “command and control” enforcement dominated Region I's initial approach: where violations were found, penalties were assessed. Encompassing Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, Region I has been the most aggressive to date. As of September 1, EPA had performed compliance inspections at 13 schools. (See Figure 1).

After penalties of $49,000 against the University of New Hampshire was disclosed in a front page Boston Globe article, the EPA sent letters to 258 New England college presidents inviting them to a March 1999 regional conference. (Enforcement fines for colleges and universities in Regions I, III, and IX are summarized in Figure 2.) At the conference, the EPA told administrators that the nature of the initiative was enforcement, not compliance assistance.

Since that conference, Region I has increased its compliance assistance efforts significantly by hosting workshops, launching a college and university web page (, and providing tools necessary to conduct audits and develop environmental-management systems (EMS). On August 1, 2001, Region I hosted an informational meeting describing its College and University Audit Policy Initiative. The initiative encouraged schools to notify EPA by September 30, 2001 that the school intended to perform a voluntary audit, disclose to the EPA some or all of the discovered violations, and voluntarily correct them within a reasonable timeframe. In exchange, the EPA promised to give participating schools a “low inspection priority,” and would reduce or eliminate civil penalties that could have been issued had the EPA discovered the violations.

Despite the agency's move to a “kinder, gentler” approach, surprise inspections of Region I colleges and universities are expected to continue indefinitely. Consequently, colleges and universities in New England must commit to audits and self-disclosure or risk enforcement.


From the start, Region II's enforcement approach has been more communicative. Before inspecting any schools, Region II scheduled several interactive workshops, published self-audit guides, and sent letters to 344 college and university presidents in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The letter warned of coming inspections to determine compliance with federal environmental regulations. It stated explicitly that fines can be reduced, and potentially eliminated, if a college or university follows the EPA audit policy and self-discloses. Region II also promises that up to 100 percent of penalties could be waived for violations voluntarily disclosed if a self-disclosure meets the policy's criteria.

From November 2000 through September 2001, Region II inspected 10 schools and found violations similar to those found in Region I. As of September 2001, EPA Region II had open enforcement cases against these schools, and potential fines, if any, are still being evaluated or negotiated.

In addition, as of September 2001, the EPA had received self-disclosures from 42 different campuses that have sought to take advantage of the self-disclosure audit policy. Of these schools, five schools received no fines; one received a 75 percent mitigation of penalties (a civil penalty was assessed for the remaining 25 percent); one did not meet the audit policy criteria; and one disclosed non-violations. The remaining self-disclosure cases are still open. Region II is also in the process of negotiating with New York State and New Jersey.


Similar to Regions I and II, EPA Region III has combined traditional enforcement with compliance assistance in an integrated college and university initiative. In addition to expressing the need to comply with environmental regulations, Region III has been promoting self-audits and environmental-management systems as effective means to achieve and maintain environmental compliance.

As of August 2001, Region III had inspected 10 schools in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, and intends to continue college and university inspections for the foreseeable future. Several schools in Region III chose to take advantage of EPA's self-audit policy.


In 1999, Region IX initiated a “Compliance on Campus” incentive program that encouraged colleges and universities in Arizona to self-audit their compliance with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), disclose the results to EPA, and correct any deficiencies identified. In exchange, participating schools were told they would receive reduced fines and additional time to correct any problems identified.

The University of Arizona and Arizona State University took advantage of the program, and conducted self-audits using the EPA RCRA Generator Audit Protocol. In both cases, the schools were not penalized for the violations they disclosed.

On a more sobering note: Region IX recently levied the single biggest fine against a university to date: $1.8 million against the University of Hawaii.

Step by step

The best way for a college or university to prepare for an EPA inspection is to gain an understanding of applicable laws and its compliance status with respect to these laws. The most effective way to get this understanding is by performing a multimedia Environmental and Chemical Safety Compliance Audit.

When voluntary audits are done properly, they identify all compliance issues and provide a road map to correct problems before they are discovered by a regulatory enforcement agency and, in some instances, before a release occurs. More and more facilities view audits as a risk-management strategy and the primary tool used to evaluate their compliance status. In addition, a facility that performs an audit may decide to take advantage of the EPA's Audit Policy, which can reduce the likelihood of enforcement actions, and can substantially reduce penalties if enforcement is taken.

Positive impact

While the fines can be daunting and the threat of EPA action has caused numerous environmental health and safety managers many sleepless nights, the prevailing view among most college and university environmental and safety professionals is that these initiatives have had many positive effects.

First, the EPA has effectively gotten top administrators and faculty to listen to and consider environmental issues. Second, colleges are devoting significantly more resources to identify and correct compliance deficiencies, and train staff. Third, the general awareness level regarding these issues has increased dramatically at all levels of the campus. Fourth, many more colleges are hiring more environmental and safety professionals to address compliance issues.

Compliance audits are a valuable tool for evaluating facility operations. They also can identify ways to reduce compliance costs, help improve campus operations and safety, and train staff in a hands-on environment. Before deciding to conduct an audit, however, a campus should be committed to addressing any deficiencies it may find. If a campus is not willing to do so, it should not perform the audit because regulators take exception to facilities that knowingly violate laws.

Because EPA inspections in all regions continue to uncover significant environmental violations under all programs, the agency is unlikely to let up on enforcement. Colleges and universities that perform audits to identify and address compliance problems early on are more likely to avoid costly cleanup problems and significant penalties.

Steinman is vice president, regulatory compliance, and Ivanovich is compliance project specialist, for Woodard & Curran, a 420-person environmental consulting firm integrating services in engineering, science and operations. The firm, based in Portland, Maine, specializes in providing compliance services to colleges and universities.

Figure 1: College and University Inspections

Region I

Boston Univ.; Brown Univ.; Central Connecticut State Univ.; Dartmouth; Harvard; MIT; New England College of Pharmacology; U.S. Coast Guard Academy; Univ. of Maine at Orono; Univ. of Massachusetts at Amherst; Univ. of New Hampshire; Univ. of Rhode Island; Yale Univ.

Region II

Columbia Univ.; Fairleigh Dickinson Univ.; Manhattan College; Mt. Saint Vincent; New Jersey City Univ.; New York Univ.; Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and Manhattan; Princeton; U.S. Merchant Marine Academy; Catholic Univ. in Ponce, Puerto Rico

Region III

George Washington Univ.; Howard University; Lincoln Univ.; U.S. Naval Academy; Univ. of Delaware; Univ. of Maryland — Baltimore; Univ. of Pennsylvania; Univ. of the District of Columbia; Univ. of Virginia; Villanova Univ.

Region IX

Arizona State Univ.; Univ. of Arizona; Univ. of Hawaii

Region V

Michigan State Univ.

Most common violations

  • Failure to make hazardous waste determinations.
  • Failure to properly label containers holding hazardous waste.
  • Failure to identify the accumulation start date.
  • Failure to provide and/or document hazardous waste training.
  • Failure to accumulate hazardous waste in a closed container.
  • Storing hazardous waste for longer than 90 days without a permit.
  • Failure to inspect hazardous waste containers in storage on a weekly basis.
  • Failure to have an adequate contingency plan.
  • Failure to separate containers holding incompatible wastes.


  • Failure to prepare and carry out an oil SPCC Plan.

  • Failure to address all required elements, including:
    -Not certified by a professional engineer.
    -Not reviewed/updated every three years.

  • Failure to include all bulk oil stored at the facility (i.e., transformers, hydraulic systems, emergency generators, drum storage, etc.).

  • Failure to identify specific spill pathways from each individual oil storage location.

Clean Air Act:

  • Failure to submit appropriate permit application.
  • Failure to include all emission sources on permit application.
  • Failure to submit appropriate reports.
  • Failure to keep fuel and solvent-usage records.
  • Failure to comply with permit conditions.
  • Failure to install or maintain opacity monitors.
  • Failure to monitor fuel for nitrogen and sulfur content.

Oil Storage:

  • Failure to provide adequate secondary containment.
  • USTs without (or with malfunctioning) leak-detection systems.
  • Incomplete UST removal — contaminated soil left on site.
  • Failure to register ASTs.

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