EPA conducting spot audits at colleges across nation

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Masschusetts Environmental Department of Environmental Protection (MADEP) have been conducting surprise audits on colleges and universities such as MIT and Harvard, enforcing various standards of environmental protection. Although Williams has not been audited, the EPA has presented the College with the option of conducting an “internal self-audit of environmental compliance.” The option of hiring an independent auditor was presented to Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College, in a July letter.

According to Adriana Cozzolino, vice-president of administration, this means that Williams will hire an environmental consultant to perform the audit before June 30, 2002. If any violations are found, the EPA must be notified within 21 days, and the problem must be remedied within 60 days. By conducting this self-audit, the College will be placed in an inspection category of “low priority” by the EPA through Dec. 31, 2002.

Cozzolino said that the College sent out requests for proposals from various environmental consultants at the end of October and is currently collecting responses. After reviewing them and selecting the best consultant for the job, the audit itself will probably be carried out after Feb. 1, to coincide with the new semester. The audit report will be sent to the EPA by June 1.

According to Anne Skinner, safety officer for the chemistry department, a self-audit basically consists of the college or university “paying to do the EPA’s job.” In this EPA region (Williamstown is located in the EPA’s region 1) there are 264 colleges and universities. Skinner said that this is why they came up with the “ingenious idea” of letting colleges inspect themselves. Certainly this is the best choice for many institutions, considering that the EPA often is strict in its audits.

Even if Williams did not audit itself, there is a chance that the EPA might not audit at all due to the large number of colleges in the area. They can only fully audit eight to 10 colleges a year. The EPA cannot inspect all 264 colleges in the region, as it normally takes four agents a week per institution to conduct a full-scale audit.

Skinner said that the auditors will be looking primarily at the science labs, art studios and hazardous material collection sites. They will be checking the storage of hazardous materials, if Williams has trained people to handle such materials and if the College has records for proper waste disposal and storage. She mentioned that in terms of the hazardous materials, colleges are looked at the same way as large chemical plants, in that they must obey the same regulations whether there is a large amount of hazardous materials (as in a chemical plant) or a very small amount (as in a college such as Williams). For example, not writing the full chemical name of a material on a canister could cause a fine of $2,000. If the labels on the canisters are not facing forward, fines could also be brought upon the school. However, these fines are often negotiated and decreased to a more reasonable amount.

Skinner is confident that “Williams is in good shape,” and will not be fined, “unless they find something really bad, someone doing something really wrong.” Since the building of the new science complex, everything is very clean and up-to-date. Skinner has all the necessary paperwork for material storage, dating back 10 years. She also has training records showing that students and staff have been trained to properly utilize materials. The only problems Williams may see are minor paperwork violations, or if they catch someone committing some sort of violation, which is highly unlikely. But truthfully, Skinner says, “we don’t know the extent to which they will inspect us.”

To prepare for the inspection, Skinner said, “We are not doing anything differently.” The faculty received a letter from Tom Kohut, dean of the faculty, explaining the auditing process. According to Skinner, the science faculty and staff “are reminding people of what they should be doing anyway. We’re being much more hard-nosed.” Research students and art studio students are being told to pay more attention in the labs, especially during Winter Study, when a great deal of research goes on.

Skinner said that the College is really prepared for the audits, and that although they might be a bit more rigid about safety precautions, “it’s not as if we’re suddenly trying to do the right thing,” she said. “We don’t have to rush around; we don’t have to shove stuff under the rug.”