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PHILADELPHIA - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with state environmental agencies, is alerting colleges and universities throughout the mid-Atlantic states about their responsibility to comply with environmental laws and regulations.

"The agency also is planning inspections to ensure protection of the environment, and the health of students and others living on or near campuses," says Samantha Fairchild, director of the Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Environmental Justice in EPA's Philadelphia regional office. "Higher education institutions are as much a part of our regulated community as are business, industry and government facilities. They must comply with all state and federal environmental laws. If they don't, they are subject to enforcement penalties."

Ms. Fairchild cites a number of environmental problems at colleges and universities that include improperly handling and disposing of hazardous waste materials; boilers and furnaces that are not in compliance with clean air regulations; inadequate monitoring of underground storage tanks; sewage treatment facilities that are not operating properly; and improper abatement of lead-based paint and asbestos.

Other potential areas of violation are chemistry laboratories; waste paints and varnishes from art classes; medical and veterinary schools; power plants; landfills; and farms where pesticides and animal waste can contaminate ground water and streams.

"Our office will give colleges and universities regulatory and technical help to comply with environmental laws, and we will encourage the schools to audit their own compliance," Ms. Fairchild added. "We also will recommend voluntary programs so institutions can reduce energy costs and pollution. It is up to the schools to take this opportunity to comply or else face enforcement."

EPA inspectors found that contractors working at Cedar Crest College of Allentown, Pa., Georgetown University of Washington, D.C., and Kutztown University of Kutztown, Pa. violated federal regulations while removing and handling asbestos. Georgetown paid a financial penalty, and all three institutions suffered negative publicity because of EPA complaints against contractors on their campuses. Prolonged exposure and inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause cancer and asbestosis, a disease which can lead to breathing difficulty and even death.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that Penn State University, University Park, Pa., had polluted groundwater in a well used as a source of water on campus with a cancer-causing chemical. In March 1997, the state agency first suspected contamination from a fire fighting training center on campus. Penn State removed 4,000 tons of dirt contaminated with the chemical perchloroethylene, or PCE, a commonly used dry-cleaning fluid and degreaser to clean industrial machinery. Federal standards allow no more than five parts per billion of PCE in groundwater. One section of the well at the university was 56 parts per billion. The cost to correct the problem has been estimated as high as $900,000.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality found serious problems at both Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The agency discovered improper use and storage of pesticides at Tech and improper storage and disposal of hazardous waste at Virginia.

Ms. Fairchild noted that colleges and universities also must comply with EPA's "worst case scenario" regulations. If specified amounts of 140 hazardous substances or propane are stored or used by an institution, a "worst-case scenario" crisis management/risk management plan must be prepared for the agency by June 30, 1999. Those affected could include sites with refrigerated warehouses and cold storage, including dairies, or water treatment facilities.

"While some colleges and universities pollute our environment, others are becoming 'green institutions,'" she points out. "Delaware State and Norfolk State universities, both historically Black colleges, are slashing budget costs and reducing pollution by participating in our Energy Star Buildings Partnership. In a time when so many colleges and universities are increasing tuition and fees, Delaware State is saving more than $648,000 a year in annual energy and operating costs."

"Delaware State's investment in upgrading lighting on more than one million square feet of its Dover campus also reduced emissions of two million pounds of carbon dioxide, 30,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 9,400 pounds of nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere."

"Norfolk State in Norfolk, Va. committed more than 1.4 million square feet of space for energy efficient upgrades and will reduce its release into the air of more than 7,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 60 tons of sulfur dioxide and 26 tons of nitrogen oxides. This equates to planting 2,700 acres of trees per year and removing 1,300 automobiles from the roads each year. Businesses committed to the Energy Star Buildings Partnership have found they can reduce energy costs from 50 cents to $1.50 a square foot," Ms. Fairchild added.

The mid-Atlantic states regional office of enforcement, compliance and environmental justice can be reached at 215/814-2627.