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EPA Finalizes Academic Lab Rule

December 4, 2008

Colleges and universities will be able to opt in to alternative hazardous waste management regulations designed specifically for laboratories at academic institutions under new rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency on December 1. This represents the culmination of two decades of efforts by the higher education community to convince the agency that academic laboratories--typically generating small amounts of many different wastes--needed special consideration.

Under a new subpart to EPA’s hazardous waste rules, Subpart K, Alternative Requirements for Hazardous Waste Determination and Accumulation of Unwanted Material for Laboratories Owned by Academic Entities, institutions may choose a more flexible, largely performance-based regime for managing hazardous waste from labs. Institutions would be required to develop a formal laboratory management plan (LMP) detailing how they would meet requirements in specific areas, such as labeling, training, and removal of hazardous waste.

Key areas of flexibility afforded academic laboratories under the rules include the following:

  • Allowing institutions to delay in making formal waste determinations, including assigning EPA waste codes, until unwanted materials are removed from laboratories and transferred to a central accumulation area; 
  • Longer accumulation times (up to six months) for unwanted materials in laboratories; 
  • Labeling standards that minimize the amount of information that must be attached to a container, allowing further information to be “associated with” the container; and
  • Special rules intended to encourage laboratory cleanouts, including up to 30 days to transport the waste and not counting certain unwanted commercial chemicals toward the institution’s generator status.

Eligibility and Opt-In

EPA received many comments in response to its proposed rule, published in May 2006, asking that other laboratories, in addition to those at colleges and universities, be included in the scope of the rule. In response, EPA has broadened eligibility to include independent teaching hospitals and research institutes, but only if they are owned by, or have a formal written affiliation agreement with, a college or university. Since a significant rationale behind the rule is the presence of a transient student population, EPA did not agree to include other types of research labs.

The final rule also allows clinical laboratories at teaching hospitals to be included under an institution’s LMP, as well as chemical stock rooms, photo laboratories, art studios, and field labs.

This new rule offers academic institutions the opportunity to opt in to the alternative standards under Subpart K by filing a form with EPA for each “site” with a separate EPA Identification Number. The election must cover all laboratories associated with that ID number. Because of the way in which EPA defines a site, many academic institutions operate under multiple generator ID numbers (often with different generator status) because campuses are often transected by public roads. While many institutions are eager to simplify regulatory compliance by bringing all of their sites under one laboratory waste management scheme, the rules do not require an institution with more than one ID number to opt in for all sites.

CESQGs.  EPA has altered its thinking on inclusion of laboratories that are at sites that are conditionally exempt small quantity generators (CESQGs). Because many of the requirements under Subpart K are more stringent than those for CESQG, EPA assumed in the proposed rule that they would not want to opt in and had excluded them from eligibility. Comments filed by colleges and universities to the proposed rule argued that both institutions with multiple EPA ID numbers, including some that are CESQGs, and smaller institutions that are CESQGs, may very well see an advantage in opting in to Subpart K. This would allow the former to develop a consistent regulatory compliance protocol for all laboratories, and both could take advantage of the laboratory cleanout provisions.  EPA decided in the final rule to include CESQGs and promulgated several specific regulations for them.

Effective Date?

While the final rule is effective December 31, 2008, in reality is likely to be much longer before institutions can actually make the election to be covered under the alternative rules. This is because the vast majority of states operate their own hazardous waste programs and are not required to adopt these new provisions. So for most colleges and universities, the battle for more rational regulation of laboratory waste is not over but the venue has moved to the states.

NACUBO, in collaboration with a number of other associations, has advocated on behalf of its members for more than twenty years to push for more appropriate regulation of laboratory waste. Key players include the Campus Safety Health and Environmental Management Association, the American Council on Education, the American Chemical Society, and many colleges and universities.

Additional Resources

NACUBO Contacts:   Anne C. Gross, vice president, regulatory affairs, 202.861.2544 or Michele Madia, director, environmental leadership, 202.861.2554.