The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a report to Congress that supports the establishment of alternatives to current Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) requirements for managing hazardous wastes generated in laboratories at academic research institutions. EPA plans to issue guidance clarifying how existing EPA regulations and policy govern academic laboratory wastes and operations and to identify regulatory changes for implementing alternative laboratory waste management procedures. Universities and colleges should monitor EPA actions on this matter and be prepared to work with EPA and state environmental agencies to facilitate the establishment of safe and cost-effective waste management procedures for laboratories.
RCRA Challenges for Academic Research Institutions
In its report, EPA recognizes that academic research institutions have had difficulty complying with RCRA hazardous waste management regulations because of the industry-oriented framework of those regulations and the differences between laboratories and industrial operations in their use and handling of hazardous chemicals. Academic research institutions commonly include numerous independently run laboratory operations, and thus there are many separate waste generation points. These operations typically use a large number of chemicals and generate a wide range of waste types in small volumes, and the rate of waste generation and accumulation is unpredictable. In addition, while laboratory personnel generally have a high level of awareness of chemical hazards, the involvement of students and independent researchers results in a diverse staff with a high rate of turnover.
Several RCRA requirements have posed particular challenges for academic research institutions. These include requirements concerning hazardous waste determination, waste generator accumulation time limits, satellite waste accumulation, container management and labeling and personnel training.
Performance-Based Waste Management/Consensus Best Practices
The EPA report responds to the findings of an initiative of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) that evaluated a performance-based approach to the management of hazardous wastes in laboratories at academic research institutions. The participants in that initiative included environmental health and safety professionals and biomedical researchers from 10 major academic research institutions, as well as representatives of state environmental agencies and EPA.
The HHMI initiative resulted in the development of fourteen "consensus best practices," which are intended to give purpose, direction and clarity to the hazardous waste management activities of academic research institutions. The best practices address the following topics:
- Executive commitment to protecting human health and the environment and promoting environmental stewardship;
- Responsibility and accountability of laboratory and environmental health and safety personnel;
- Pollution prevention;
- Chemical hygiene plans;
- Standard operating procedures for an institution’s chemical waste management program;
- Labeling of chemical materials removed from laboratories;
- Environmental health and safety program responsibility for chemical management;
- Environmental health and safety program responsibility for waste minimization;
- Environmental health and safety program responsibility for waste determination;
- Chemical emergency planning;
- Training of laboratory and environmental health and safety personnel;
- Communication system linking an institution’s executive leadership with laboratory and environmental health and safety personnel; and
- Evaluation of an institution’s chemical waste management program.
The HHMI initiative envisioned using these best practices for chemical waste management activities in academic laboratories, while using the current RCRA provisions for chemical waste management activities at the point where the environmental health and safety program assumes responsibility for laboratory waste materials and makes the RCRA hazardous waste determination. According to the HHMI initiative report, this two-tiered approach is based on the premise that environmental health and safety program personnel are most qualified to determine whether laboratory chemicals constitute hazardous wastes and are responsible for conducting waste treatment on behalf of the institution.
EPA Position on Implementation of Consensus Best Practices
In its report to Congress, EPA states that using the consensus best practices developed through the HHMI initiative can further improve the management of hazardous wastes generated in academic research institutions. In addition, EPA states that it believes the current RCRA regulations are flexible and may allow for the implementation of many of the best practices. According to the report, the extent to which the application of a best practice is consistent with RCRA regulations would depend upon the specific measures actually implemented by an institution. The report further states that EPA, states and academic institutions will need to work together on certain issues to determine clearly whether a best practice would require a regulatory change.
Despite recognizing that some practices may not warrant regulatory changes, EPA states that promulgation of regulatory changes addressing a range of academic laboratory issues is, in general, preferable to a non-regulatory approach. In EPA’s view, this would ensure opportunities for input from a broad range of interested parties, and it would allow EPA to work with states, EPA Regions, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, HHMI, laboratory associations and the public to develop an approach that builds on the consensus best practices and other ongoing initiatives. EPA believes that this approach would also promote consistency among federal and state regulators and would encourage states with more stringent requirements to conform their regulations to a consistent national model.
EPA Plans for Guidance/Regulatory Changes
During the next several months, EPA plans to issue guidance that clarifies how existing EPA regulations and policy apply to the management of hazardous waste materials generated in laboratories at academic research institutions. Later this year, EPA is expected to begin the process of identifying regulatory changes that may be appropriate to implement alternative waste management procedures for such laboratories. EPA is likely to seek the input of stakeholders early and frequently in this process. Consequently, it is extremely important that universities and colleges monitor EPA activities on this subject and be prepared to comment and otherwise work with EPA and state environmental officials to achieve regulatory changes and interpretations that will facilitate efficient, cost-effective, safe and environmentally protective waste management procedures for laboratories.