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MIT to create three new environmental projects as part of agreement with EPA

MIT is launching three major environmental projects this spring: a web-based environmental virtual campus demonstrating environmental regulatory requirements at a typical research university; a program on education and the environment for teachers and students in the Cambridge public schools; and a biofiltration stormwater management system at MIT's new Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences.

The projects are part of an agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which cited MIT for violations of 18 hazardous waste laws and regulations after a 1998 inspection. The EPA did not find any resulting damage to the environment.

These Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) are outlined in a consent decree filed in the US District Court in Boston last Wednesday by the EPA, MIT and the US Department of Justice. In addition to the three SEPs, for which MIT will spend $405,000, the decree calls for a $150,000 fine. In signing the decree, MIT did not admit to any violation of law. The decree requires MIT to implement an environmental management system that covers regulatory training and auditing.

MIT's managing director for environmental programs and risk management and senior counsel, Jamie Lewis Keith, said, "MIT is data-driven. When faced with the inspection data, MIT took immediate action to demonstrate our commitment to environmental stewardship. We are committed not only to the environmental research we have undertaken for decades, but also to increasing the environmental sustainability of our campus."

"This settlement will lead to significant environmental benefits that extend far beyond MIT's campus," said Ira Leighton, acting regional administrator of EPA's New England office. "Cambridge and the Charles River will see improvements, as will universities and colleges all across the country." He also applauded MIT for its cooperation with EPA. "MIT has used this enforcement action to spur environmental initiatives above and beyond what is required by the consent decree," he said.

"We commend MIT for the aggressive steps it has taken to correct the environmental deficiencies at issue in [the] settlement and for the innovative environmental projects it has agreed to undertake," said US Attorney Donald K. Stern.

EPA inspectors, who visited approximately 20 percent of MIT's 2,200 laboratories during a three-day visit, found violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act concerning the management of hazardous waste containers, training and record-keeping. The EPA acknowledged that MIT had already addressed most of the violations before entering the decree. The agency's letter also acknowledged that organizational improvements already have been made by MIT.

The EPA also praised MIT's concept for an environmental management system (EMS) "that will integrate compliance, education, regulatory training, research and 'green' environmental practices." The letter to President Vest stated that the agency believes MIT's system "will go beyond the EMS requirements in the consent decree [and] serve as a model for large academic research institutions."

"MIT's approach is to integrate legal compliance with initiatives to make our campus more environmentally sustainable," Ms. Keith said. "This not only reaps greater benefits for the environment, but also reduces regulatory burdens and serves as a potent educational message to our students about environmental responsibility."

In addition to integrating compliance and environmental sustainability, MIT is trying to solve the complicated issues of environmental management in large and decentralized academic research institutions.

"Rather than taking a Band-Aid approach that would only temporarily address legal compliance, MIT has designed an environmental, health and safety management system that uses automation technology and a systems integration approach to provide information to the environmental service and oversight groups at the Institute, while preserving the independence of research in labs and centers," Ms. Keith said. "The EPA's flexible approach to this enforcement has given MIT the opportunity to design a real solution to the cultural, operational and organizational challenges to compliance and sustainability facing many institutions of higher education."

MIT's EMS concept will be refined and implemented under the oversight of a committee of researchers, staff and administrators.

MIT is the sixth university in New England fined by the EPA in the past two years. The others are the University of Rhode Island, Brown University, the University of New Hampshire, Boston University and Yale University.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 25, 2001.

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