Managing Your School's Air, Water and Waste Concerns

Article excerpt

Inadequate management of environmental issues can lead to legal liabilities, health impacts, injuries, damage to property and the environment and negative publicity

A high school in Massachusetts found itself the owner of donated electroplating chemicals, which it had to dispose of as hazardous wastes at a great cost. Schools in Connecticut and Rhode Island conducted indoor air quality testing after concerns about asbestos demolitions/renovations were raised. Several Massachusetts schools that supply their own drinking water through onsite wells have found elevated levels of perchlorate, arsenic or other contaminants in the water. A Maine elementary school burned all of the books in its library because of mold contamination.

Increasingly, schools are getting media attention because of environmental issues. The circumstances at these New England schools may seem unique, but the range of potential health and environmental problems associated with these issues are not. An "out of sight, out of mind" mentality is not responsible in light of the kinds of problems that can arise from mismanagement of school environmental issues.

What Are the Issues?

Schools are complex places with multiple impacts on the surrounding environment. There are:

* Buildings to maintain and operate (involving cleaning, repair work, cosmetic improvements, new construction and management of wastes)

* Academic courses to teach, which involve the use of hazardous chemicals (particularly in vocational shops, chemistry laboratories and art classrooms)

* Vehicles to maintain and operate (which often run on diesel fuels)

* Additional operations which generate wastes or potential chemical exposures (pesticide application, operation of dining and recreational facilities)

The environmental issues that arise from running a school are complex and varied, including asbestos management; chemical selection, management and disposal; radon; indoor air quality; solid waste recycling and disposal; drinking water quality; lead paint; stormwater management; emissions from diesel buses; pest management and the maintenance of underground storage tanks for fuels.

In contrast to environmental issues that arise from industrial operations, the environmental impacts of schools are often felt most directly, not by neighbors and the community at large, but by the students and staff who work daily in the buildings, many of whom are among the more vulnerable members of the population. Who is put in charge of environmental issues may vary from school to school, but often these responsibilities fall upon superintendents on the broad level and on facility maintenance personnel, administrators and teachers on the local level, all of whom need training and budgets to address potential problems. Inadequate management of environmental issues can lead to legal liabilities, health impacts, injuries, damage to property and the environment and negative publicity.

Putting it Together

EPA's New England office, like the other nine EPA regional offices, wants to help schools manage environmental issues responsibly. This means looking at the big picture-inventorying and understanding the full range of environmental issues associated with each school facility in context, and developing a plan that helps schools prioritize issues, identify solutions and coordinate human and financial resources needed to work through them. EPA services are available to nonpublic as well as public schools.

In private industry, a concept called Environmental Management Systems (EMS) has been widely applied. EMS is a management system designed to help an organization continually focus on important environmental issues. The basic elements of an EMS are "Plan" [arrow right] "Do" [arrow right] "Check" [arrow right] "Act" [arrow right]. As you can see in the accompanying diagram, this is intended to be a cycle of effort, focusing on continuous improvement. …