EPA assesses fines to GW for improper chemical disposal

The Environmental Protection Agency found GW in violation of two major federal environmental regulations – one involving improper disposal of hazardous waste – and assessed the University with more than $100,000 in fines, an EPA official said Tuesday.

GW flunked two different regulations, said Garth Conner, an environmental scientist and EPA enforcement officer. Conner led a team of inspectors from the EPA and the D.C. Department of Health that examined GW’s campus last Sept. 13 and 14.

GW disagrees with several conditions described in the report.Discussions between the EPA and the University are ongoing, and both Conner and University officials said they feel the fines eventually will be reduced.

GW’s always environmentally conscious, and in our view, none of the cited violations resulted in any pollution events, said Barbara Porter, director of Public Affairs.

The most severe infraction, assessed at about $62,000, was issued for hazardous waste violations, an infraction of the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The RCRA was passed to restrain midnight dumpings in the 1970s, when companies and individuals frequently disposed of hazardous materials at odd hours of the night to avoid paying for proper chemical treatment and disposal.

The inspection report described a variety of things GW did wrong with its hazardous waste disposal. By law, all hazardous waste must be stored and properly labeled until it is taken away to be treated, Conner said. The University was also cited for not having an emergency plan to deal with an oil spill or leak.

In its report the EPA suggests GW was not doing that at the time of the investigation last fall. In Smith Hall, a building that houses the art department, a 35-gallon container labeled waste photo fixer (D011) had no accumulation start date and had been left open during accumulation, an improper handling of hazardous material, according to the report. Conner said students who developed film by hand were dumping the photo fixer down the drain.

Film developer is considered hazardous waste by definition, Conner said. It’s supposed to be recovered in a container before someone can take it away for treatment. The instructor wasn’t really educated about the fact that her students were generating this hazardous waste material, and it was ending up down the drain.

GW Safety Manager Eric Hougen disputes this section of the report.

We were really surprised to see that in the report, Hougen said. We have a system in place, and always have, to collect (the developer) and hold it until it can be shipped off. I went in the next week (after the investigation) to check with the photography department. They were and are definitely aware of the safety procedures and know they’re not supposed to pour it down the drain. Students receive handouts that say: `Don’t pour this down the drain.’

The report maintains that sites generating hazardous chemicals in buildings around campus mislabeled containers as chemical residue instead of hazardous waste, as environmental law mandates. A dangerous chemical, mercuric thiocyanate, generated at the Mount Vernon campus, was transported without a permit to the Foggy Bottom campus for storage in Corcoran Hall, according to the inspection report. Facilities must have a permit to transport, store or dispose of hazardous material, Conner said.

Hougen said the chemical transportation did not follow the strict safety guidelines of the EPA but said that the University’s decision to move the chemical was the safest option. When GW acquired the Mount Vernon campus, University officials found chemicals in Mount Vernon’s chemistry laboratories, including Agent Orange and the mercuric thiocyanate mentioned by the EPA, Hougen said. The University worked with two different firms to transport and dispose of the chemicals but could not find a home for the mercuric thiocyanate.

No one would accept it, Hougen said. You can’t put something like that in the ground, and renovations on the building it was in were starting. So instead of risking it being disturbed in the renovations, we decided the safest option was to transport it to our storage facility in Corcoran Hall.

Hougen said all hazardous waste generated in University chemistry and photography labs is held in a storage facility in the basement of Corcoran Hall.

The second violation concerned the lack of a Spill Prevention and Control Countermeasure, a regulation derived from the potential destruction caused by an oil spill or leak. The goal of SPCC rules is to prevent oil from reaching nearby water bodies and contaminating them, Conner said. The University’s proximity to the Potomac River and Rock Creek, and its large amount of oil storage on campus, requires it to have a contingency plan.

According to the report, GW has 18 underground storage tanks on campus with a capacity of about 174,000 gallons of oil, mostly for heating purposes. This is significantly over the mark of 42,000 gallons of underground oil tanks for which an SPCC plan is necessary by law.

GW should have had a plan that says, what would we do if this happened? Conner said. If one of our underground tanks ruptured? They have plenty of tanks, and they should have had this prevention plan ready in case.

The EPA delivered the University an assessed fine of $38,000 for this violation.

Hougen acknowledged that the University was without the SPCC plan. One was composed by a University engineer immediately following the investigation and was submitted to the EPA.

All of our storage tanks have been replaced in the last three years and are very state of the art, Hougen said.

On Dec. 30, 1999, the EPA’s Region III Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Environmental Justice filed a complaint that summarized the penalties in an amount the agency deemed appropriate for the University’s actions, Conner said. The fines are determined by looking at different factors, such as how long the violation had been going on, what it was and what damage ensued.

Hougen said his office was shocked when the University received the enforcement letter.

Right after the inspection, we met with the EPA inspectors, and they gave us the impression that we’d done pretty well, Hougen said. They said they gave us a `B.’ To then get a letter three months later assessing some pretty big fines was a shock.

It’s like a teacher-student relationship, Conner said. We want them to be aware of these things so they can do it right.

If an agreement between the two parties cannot be reached through informal discussions, Hougen said the next step would be to go before an EPA judge in a formal hearing in Philadelphia.

The EPA calls this sort of examination a multimedia inspection that also checks for compliance with the Underground Storage Tank regulations, the Clean Air Act and the Fungicide, Insecticide, Fumigant and Rodenticide Act.

GW was exempt from or passed the rest of these regulation measures.

I really believe that GW has a really good environmental record, Hougen said. We’ve been doing pretty well, and we’re looking to raise our standards ever higher.

Though it was a joint investigation involving health department officials, the EPA is taking the lead in the matter, said Angelo Tompros, program manager for the hazardous waste division of the D.C. Department of Health. The District will not release its report until after all pending enforcement action has concluded.

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