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EPA Proposes Performance-Based Standards for Academic Labs

May 31, 2006

Colleges and universities would be given flexibility to determine the best way for their laboratories to meet hazardous waste regulations under proposed rules published by the Environmental Protection Agency May 23. The notice of proposed rulemaking proposes to add a new Subpart K–Standards Applicable to Academic Laboratories, to the agency’s rules covering generators of hazardous waste. Comments on the NPRM are due August 21.

Academic laboratories are defined as areas within a college or university where relatively small quantities of chemicals are used for teaching or research. Art studios would be included, but not photo processing facilities that routinely generate the same hazardous wastes. Laboratories at hospitals connected to universities would not be covered. EPA has requested comments on whether labs at other types of organizations should be included.

The new rules would be optional: institutions would be able to choose whether to be covered by the new performance-based regulations or to remain subject to existing rules. An institution would have to officially notify EPA that it was opting to be covered.

The NPRM closely resembles recommendations made by a group of higher education associations, including NACUBO, to EPA in 2002.  The recommendations were based on 20 years of attempts to convince the agency to promulgate special rules for academic labs that recognize the unique nature of the laboratory environment.

The associations, NACUBO, the American Council on Education, the Campus Safety, Health and Environmental Management Association, the Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence, and the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers, joined by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have been working with EPA’s Sector Strategy program for three years on regulatory reform, performance measurement, environmental management systems, and sustainability issues. The NPRM is one outcome of those efforts.

The proposed Subpart K would provide institutions with flexibility to manage unwanted materials in labs in a more efficient and effective manner, tailored to individual circumstances, as laid out in a Laboratory Management Plan developed by the institution. The LMP would describe the procedures the institution will use to implement specific requirements of the regulations. It does not need to be submitted to or approved by EPA but is retained by the institution, which will be held accountable for both the content of the plan and managing its operation in accordance with it. The LMP must detail how the institution will comply with provisions in Subpart K on:

  • container management;
  • container labeling;
  • training for laboratory workers;
  • instruction for students;
  • training to ensure safe on-site movement of unwanted materials;
  • scheduled identification and removal of unwanted materials from labs;
  • hazardous waste determinations;
  • laboratory clean-outs; and 
  • emergency notifications and response procedures.

Some of the key provisions of the NPRM include the following:

  • Allowing institutions flexibility in determining whether an unwanted material in a laboratory is a regulated hazardous waste. Under current regulations, any individual who generates hazardous waste is required to make this determination at the place of generation. This is impractical for academic labs, where a large and ever-changing number of individuals may generate waste in small amounts at many locations. The new rules would allow this determination to be made by designated trained professionals, either in the lab before the materials are transported or within four days of their arrival at a central accumulation facility. This would also make it easier for chemicals that are unwanted by one lab to be redistributed to another, thereby reducing the volume of waste.
  • Allowing greater latitude in the management and labeling of containers in labs. For instance, current rules require all containers of hazardous waste to be closed during storage, except when waste is being added or removed. This does not always work for ongoing processes in a lab environment. Labs have also had trouble complying with current labeling standards that require more information than will fit on small containers.  The performance-based standard would require that a system be in place to prevent leaks, that containers are in good condition and compatible with wastes, etc. but leave it up to the institution to say how it would do so. Labels would not be required to include as much information, and systems that “associate” information with a container, such as bar-coding, would be allowed.
  • Differentiating training requirements for various classes of laboratory workers and students. The institution would determine, as part of its plan, how much instruction or training various individuals need, commensurate with their duties.
  • Modifying the requirements for removal of unwanted materials from labs. The proposal would set a six-month time limit for regular removal of unwanted materials from labs, unless certain quantity thresholds are met. Institutions would have 10 days, rather than the current 3, to remove unwanted materials, making it easier to schedule pickups.
  • Relaxing time frames for laboratory clean-outs and excluding hazardous waste from clean-outs when determining generator status. Current time frames for storing hazardous waste require removal within three days if volume exceeds 55 gallons, making it difficult for an institution to systematically clean out a lab. Also, the monthly volume of hazardous waste is used to determine an institution’s generator status. Lab clean-outs can cause an institution’s status to change from a small-quantity to a large-quantity generator, temporarily subjecting the institution to a different level of regulation. The NPRM would allow 30 days for an institution to clean out a lab and would exclude the resulting waste from the determination of generator status.

The new rules would not automatically take effect in all states. States that are authorized by EPA to run their own hazardous waste programs would need to adopt the Subpart K regulations as part of their state programs.

The proposed rules are unusual, with EPA repeatedly suggesting alternatives to its proposal and requesting comments on the options. The alternatives often lay out a more prescriptive regulatory framework. Comments on the NPRM are due August 21.  NACUBO urges members to review the NPRM and submit comments to EPA. Please share your concerns with NACUBO.

NACUBO Contact: Anne Gross, vice president, regulatory affairs, 202.861.2544 or Michele Madia, senior policy analyst, 202.861.2554.