Feb. 11-17, 2000
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Hazardous waste policy leaves no bottle uncapped

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Bottles like these that are left open and labeled inproperly are considered hazardous waste, and the state or federal governments can slap hefty fines on the University for such violations. Under a new policy, U.Va.'s Office of Environmental Health and Safety will be making unannounced inspections and recommends that departments notify the office if they find unknown substances in their areas.

New hazardous waste policy leaves no bottle uncapped

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

U.Va. has adopted a new policy for handling hazardous materials, having narrowly missed being fined over $400,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency last year for repeated infractions, such as unlabelled or open containers of hazardous materials, dating back to 1992.

Under the new policy, for the next five years U.Va.'s Office of Environmental Health and Safety will conduct unannounced biannual inspections of every site on Grounds where hazardous chemicals are used. As with financial audits, the vice president overseeing an area, as well as its dean and director or department chair, will be notified about potential violations. There will be an escalation of penalties for non-compliance that will be assessed to the departments involved, said Ralph O. Allen, chemistry professor and director of the OEHS.

The new policy was prompted by an EPA visit last June, when the agency found four violations in exactly the same places as the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality had found them the previous August. This could have resulted in enormous fines, Allen said.

The web site for U.Va.'s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, http://keats.admin.virginia.edu/, includes safety and waste disposal policies and procedures, online chemical safety training, the chemical waste pick-up request form, a laboratory survival manual and information on what constitutes hazardous waste and how to dispose of it properly.

"U.Va. responded in a very positive way to try to solve the problem," he said, adding that the University's readiness to create a new approach to handling waste caused the EPA to be lenient, though the agency fined Yale University $400,000 for four infractions last year.

"The administration is serious about not letting this be a issue," he said. "They [put] a process in place and eliminated a lot of the reasons we've had problems. They convinced the EPA that we have a huge program with a lot of people involved, and our compliance in generally excellent. ... I think we'll get fined about $8,500."

Under the new policy, the first time a lab is caught mishandling waste by U.Va. inspectors, the person in charge must respond with a letter describing how it happened and plans for preventing it from happening again, Allen said, noting that the lab would then be inspected quarterly for the next year.

Following the second violation, everyone in the lab must undergo training with the Environmental Health and Safety Office, he said.

After the third time, the department involved will be required to pay a $25,000 fine and the name of the person who oversees the lab will be reported to the DEQ.

U.Va.'s vice presidents have said departments should not get caught a third time, Allen said. Additionally, some deans have talked about withholding research funding from departments after repeated violations.

The violations themselves might seem trivial -- for instance, someone in the art department puts some alcohol-soaked rags in a box, forgetting to label it; a student working in a lab leaves a bottle uncapped or unlabelled; a Parking and Transportation employee shoves an empty, uncapped gasoline drum onto the loading dock, where it fills with rainwater, which an inspector would assume to be waste.

"If it's not labeled, it's regarded as waste," Allen said. "You could have an EPA penalty of up to $27,500 per day per violation," measuring the time that's elapsed between when the DEQ cites a violation and when the EPA finds it again.

Allen cited three sources of problems in science laboratories.

"In the teaching labs, it wasn't always clear who was responsible for ensuring compliance; now that needs to be very clear,"he said. "Every [person responsible for a lab] has to come up with a plan and get it approved by the OEHS." There was also a problem with people leaving U.Va. without disposing of their lab materials. "A new person would come in and shove them to the side. Department chairs are now responsible for notifying the OEHS so it can arrange for disposal of any materials that might be left behind," he said.

It can cost $30,000 to $40,000 to clean out a lab, including $250 to identify the contents of one container. Departments will now have to pay that cost if they haven't notified the OEHS in a timely manner, he said. During a recent amnesty period for unlabelled materials, Allen's office disposed of over 4,500 bottles of chemicals, following proper procedures.

U.Va. handled 500,000 pounds of hazardous waste in 1998, the most recent year for which data are available, Allen said.

The third problem stems from people not being aware of the new policy. For instance, a graduate student who was away writing her thesis when training sessions occurred came back to continue her experiments, left a bottle open and was caught by OEHS inspectors.

"There's an incredible number of people who could do something wrong," he said, pointing out that there are 1,300 locations on Grounds where hazardous waste is generated, not including 2,000 mechanical spaces.

"We've figured out from our inspections what the problems are, and we're solving them in a practical and significant way," Allen said. "The EPA can see that."


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