Inspectors from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are expected to visit MIT soon as part of a campaign to make the Charles River safe for fishing and swimming by Earth Day in April 2005.
The team of inspectors will spend several days checking MIT's compliance with regulations regarding:
- Hazardous waste generation, treatment, storage and disposal
- Discharges of pollutants controlled by the Clean Water Act
- Underground storage tanks
- Oil spill prevention and control
- Stormwater permitting and management
"Where violations of the law are discovered, the polluting activities will be enjoined, penalties will be assessed, and self-audits and supplemental projects going beyond the minimum requirements of the law will be pursued," John DeVillars, the EPA regional administrator, told MIT officials in a March 2 letter to regulated facilities in the lower Charles River watershed, in announcing the pending inspections. The maximum fine is $25,000 per citation.
"It is not our objective to launch an ambush that entraps the unwary," said Mr. DeVillars. "Instead, we hope that through this letter and other communications we will give all regulated facilities in the lower Charles watershed ample opportunities to review their operations and correct whatever environmental problems they might have."
Other members of the Charles River watershed in Cambridge, Boston and other communities received similar letters, including Harvard University, which is expected to be inspected at the same time that MIT is.
"Our goal is full compliance with the law, not additional notches on our enforcement belt," Mr. DeVillars said. "With all sincerity, I can say that I will be a happy man if our enforcement inspections uncover no violations."
Upon their arrival on campus, the inspectors will meet with Safety Office officials to outline their objectives, tell them which sites they want to inspect and what documents they want to see. Accompanied by hosts, they will then fan out across campus to do visual inspections, take photographs, interview researchers and laboratory personnel, and review documents.
Several environmental research projects at MIT have been funded by the EPA, including a study that showed how metal hastens tree damage; water contamination studies at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod; testing for metals in plankton and other plants, and pollutants in groundwater; reducing sulfur dioxide emissions; a study to determine why so much energy is wasted in heating Russian homes; a study of soot particles; an Air Force study designed to make the disposal of airplanes environmentally more responsible; and a study designed to formulate strategies for polluted communities to achieve environmental justice.
In addition, the Green Lights Program won the EPA's Partner of the Year award in 1996. The project, which retrofitted the lights and ballasts on campus from 1992-96, resulted in a savings of 12 million KwHs and $1 million a year.
MIT also has instituted environmentally responsible programs involving water conservation; lab waste testing and documentation; water runoff treatment; landscaping; recycling paper, cans, bottles and fluorescent bulbs; machine solvent disposal; transportation alternatives; and better fuel sources.
The new cogeneration facility has improved air quality by reducing pollutant emissions by 45 percent. That is equivalent to eliminating 13,000 commuter round trips to Cambridge by automobile, a 5.3 percent reduction. The new incinerator on Ames Street replaced two older facilities and reduced emissions dramatically.
In recent years, the EPA accelerated its enforcement efforts at colleges and universities nationwide. In New England, both Yale University and Boston University have been the subject of EPA inspections.
Yale paid a $69,570 fine in 1995 after being cited for mishandling and mislabeling chemicals the previous year. The school also agreed to invest $279,000 in environmental programs. BU, inspected in 1996, reached a settlement with the EPA last October in which the school agreed to pay a $250,000 cash penalty, spend $500,000 on environmental projects and conduct a comprehensive environmental compliance audit.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 6, 1998.