The EPA Is Studying You
- By Michael Fickes
- January 1st, 2007
Last August, the Potomac Elementary School District #11 received a citation from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) assessing a $400 fine. Potomac had neglected to conduct monthly release detection monitoring for its underground storage tanks. Since the district had not been monitoring, it had no monthly records. MDEQ tagged the district for violating requirements to monitor and keep records. To clear things up, Potomac paid the $400 fine and permanently closed the underground storage tanks.
Does your district maintain underground storage tanks? Do you know the environmental protection laws and regulations that apply to those tanks? If you don’t, do you know where to go to find the rules?
State and federal environmental regulators do not give K-12 schools a pass when they fail to comply with regulations regarding asbestos, other hazardous materials, chemical handling, and other rules. Districts caught — often during unannounced inspections — will find themselves paying fines and repairing the damage they have caused.
Studying up on environmental regulations is a must. Rules cover hundreds if not thousands of procedures related to chemical releases, pesticide exposures, flaking lead paint, mold, damaged asbestos-containing building materials, and other environmental flashpoints. How can school district officials with limited resources stay abreast of and in compliance with such wide-ranging requirements?
Wetlands, Hazardous Wastes, Drinking Water, PCBs, And Who Knows What Else?
Do you know anything about protecting wetlands? If there is a wetland near one of your facilities, you had better find out. In Massachusetts, for example, the Northborough/Southborough Regional School District failed to research and comply with regulations governing construction projects carried out next to wetlands. As a result, a contractor ran afoul of those regulations during an expansion project at the Algonquin Regional High School, which borders a protected wetland.
After the project began, the Northborough Conservation Commission asked the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to inspect the wetlands. Inspectors observed the build-up of sediment in the neighboring wetland and a stream. They traced the sediment to soil erosion from the construction site.
The district negotiated a settlement with MassDEP, under which the district would complete a Wetlands Restoration Plan by June of 2006. The plan called for the removal of sediment from the stream and other affected areas of the wetland. Restored areas were to be replanted.
Starting a construction project with a clear and detailed erosion control plan is the first step in preventing violations to the Wetland Protection Act, says Martin Suuberg, director of MassDEP’s Central Regional Office in Worcester.Of equal importance in preventing problems is providing oversight to assure that the plans are carried out.
Just last year, the Palo Alto Unified School District learned about hazardous waste disposal from one of its elementary schools. In October of 2005, the California Department of Toxic Substances fined the district $5,000 for hazardous waste violations. The district’s Fairmeadow Elementary School was charged with giving hazardous waste to a transporter without providing a manifest, failing to accurately complete a manifest, failing to label a container of hazardous waste, and failing to possess a state environmental protection agency identification number as a hazardous waste generator.
For most of 2005, the Kilbuck Elementary School in Bethel, AK, part of the Lower Kuskokwim School District, had unsafe levels of lead in its drinking water system. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) order issued in November of 2005 requires the school to flush its drinking water system daily, control corrosion in the system’s pipes, notify users of the system of the quality of the drinking water, and test the water twice a year to make sure that the flushing continues to reduce lead to safe levels.
The water operators have been routinely running the water fountains each morning before school in order to reduce any lead that may have leached from the pipes and appliances overnight, says Vaughn Blethen, USEPA enforcement officer. While this is effective in reducing the immediate levels of lead, it is not an acceptable long-term solution to the problem. The school will continue to apply these procedures until completing a $1.2 million upgrade of the drinking water system funded by the state.
Sometimes violations come from sloppiness. Back in 2000, for example, in response to complaints from school-district employees, EPA investigators found caches of old light fixtures at two elementary schools, two middle schools, a high school, a bus barn, and a district warehouse in the Reynolds School District near Portland, OR. Some of these caches were located in areas frequented by children and teachers, and many of the fixtures were leaking a tar-like fluid filled with cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).
The harsh penalty stemmed from the discovery that Portland General Electric had given a USEPA-funded grant to the district to replace the old light fixtures in 1996. The grant arrived with materials produced by the USEPA specifying the proper disposal of light fixtures.
How To Get Off The Hot Seat
Although there are thousands of regulations to read, grasp, and implement, school district officials cannot plead ignorance of environmental regulations. But how is it possible to master all of these materials?
At the beginning of 2006, the USEPA introduced a software tool to help school districts evaluate their facilities in light of environmental regulations. The tool also includes materials related to safety and health regulations. Called the Healthy School Environments Assessment Tool or HealthySEAT, it can be customized and used by district-level staff to conduct voluntary assessments of multiple school buildings and other facilities and to track and manage information on environmental regulatory compliance school by school.
In addition to environmental issues, HealthySEAT can also help school district officials collect and organize data to build cases for renovations, repairs, and maintenance budgets. It can also produce reports for community review, illustrating a district’s commitment to the health and safety of children and staff. Topics include:
Construction and renovation
Health, safety, and injury prevention
Indoor air quality
Outdoor air pollution
Pest control/integrated pest management
Portable and relocatable classrooms
Drinking water, waste water, and storm water
The software application comes with a User’s Manual. Step-by-step instructions are provided for customizing and using HealthySEAT. There is a tracking software component of the package that uses a Runtime version of Microsoft Access. As a result, you will not need to purchase new software.
The tracking software will also help to manage a district-wide assessment program. It will generate letters to individual schools, pre- and post-assessment visit, tracking the status of facility conditions and corrective actions school-by-school, and creating and generating reports for district use.
Working inside the tracking software, district officials can generate and print customized inspection checklists and a customized guidebook that treats hundreds of USEPA regulations and recommendations.
Since the introduction of HealthySEAT last year, the USEPA has strongly encouraged states and tribes to work across appropriate agencies to incorporate their own requirements into HealthySEAT’s database, in the hopes of reducing duplicate district efforts related to complying with state regulations.
In the end, environmental regulations for schools aim to correct hazards before they result in health problems in students and staff related to asthma, lead poisoning, and other chemical exposures; productivity and performance losses in students and staff; and school closures due to spills, accidents, or other preventable environmental health and safety issues.
Of course, any of these kinds of problems can be accompanied by expensive regulatory enforcement actions, community concern, and resource-draining media attention. Using HealthySEAT to ensure regulatory compliance can eliminate or at least control these problems.