Where's the Safety Net?

UT's 40 Year Toxic History

By Kathy Mitchell
May 1991; pages 4, 8-9, 14; Volume 2, No. 6
Polemicist Caution

On December 31, 1990, the EPA filed a Complaint and Compliance Order against the University. The complaint identified 17 violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which the Texas Water Commission uncovered during hazardous waste inspections in August 1989 and March 1990. UT currently faces charges totaling $170,550.

In its official response, the University admitted to seven of the violations, from personnel training inadequacies and failure to post warning signs, to failure to check to see what's in all the drums it sends for disposal. UT will probably settle the rest of the allegations out of court, according to Brian Berwick of the Attorney General's Office.

The EPA's allegations are only the most recent chapter in a long history of hazardous waste violations at the University, both on the main campus and at the Balcones Research Center (BRC). The University now must "clean-up" its act. The University portrays itself as a high-tech leader in Austin, and has spearheaded the effort to bring toxic producing industries like the consortiums MCC and Sematech (See Polemicist, December 1990 and April 1991). It brags that the Microelectronics Research Center at Balcones will "concentrate on new devices, based on new kinds of materials, grown and processed by new methods...such as Organometallic Chemical Vapor Deposition," but UT does not prioritize developing new methods to reduce the number and quantity of highly toxic waste chemicals used in such processes.

Chemicals wastes, generated at the print shop in the basement of the Communications building, at the Service Building on Speedway and in labs throughout campus surround students with invisible hazards. While students assume that the University takes care of their safety, inspection reports over the last five years reveal that the Texas Water Commission has repeatedly reprimanded UT for storing wastes in unlabeled drums, for insufficiently training emergency personnel, lab technicians and others, for leaving unmarked drums of hazardous substances standing open, and for failing to maintian records of the toxic materials that move from the over 1,500 labs on campus to storage at Balcones and eventual disposal.

50 Tons of Who Knows What

The University, its resources increasingly directed toward high-tech and military research, generated over 50 tons of hazardous wastes between January 1989 and December 1990, according to the TWC's annual shipper monitoring report.

Of this, waste managers shipped 34 tons off-site, while handling another 16 tons at Balcones and on the Main Campus. The hazardous wastes varied from flamable liquids like phenyllithium, to poisons, corrosive liquids (nitric, sulfuric and hydrochloric acid), heavy metals and solvents. Picric acid and sodium metal, shipped out in explosion-proof boxes, go to the Austin Police Department for disposal. Mercury is shipped out of state.

In addition, the University stores additional quantities of hazardous materials in laboratory and utility buildings all over campus, including chloroform, sulfuric acid, argon, hydrogen cyanide and others in large quantities, according to the Tier II report filed under SARA Title III (the Citizen's Right to Know Act). The total quantities of toxics on campus at any one time cannot be determined, however, because the EPA regulates "waste" differently from "materials." Hazardous "materials" are chemicals that have not been processed before use. Usually purchased in bulk and stored for use in labs, the print shop, the power plant, the physical plant and elsewhere, they are regulated under Title III by the Texas Department of Health. The same toxic materials, generated on campus by a chemical process, is a "waste" regulated by the Water Commission under RCRA. Hazardous materials can be accumulated for a year without a permit, while hazardous waste must be removed quickly.

For UT classification can be more important than safety. Among the finer returns on UT's investment in Sematech, for example, the consortium graciously donated to the University more than 140 gallons of hazardous waste chemicals left over from construction. After Sematech dropped off the drums, UT classified them as hazardous "materials," putting them in storage until Texan reporter David Loy called the TWC to report a possible violation, February 13 of this year.

According to TWC District Manager John Young, "Sematech determined that those were wastes. They didn't need them any more...so they gave them to UT." Although several employees complained that UT had no use for the chemicals, they remained in storage for nearly a year. "You cannot accumulate hazardous wastes speculatively, on the off chance that you might use them," continued Young. "They had 12 months to use 70 percent of that material, and their time was running out." This is a new twist on "high risk" investment. After the February inspection, the Safety Office reclassified the drums as hazardous wastes and sent them to Balcones for disposal.

What's Inside that Drum?

Students might be surprised to learn that UT probably stores toxic chemicals in at least some of the buildings they visit every day; student services, the gyms, RLM, the Erwin Center, the Education Annex, engineering, the West Mall building, the PAC and others. They assume that someone knows what's inside that drum. Yet, nearly every annual and emergency investigation into UT's waste handling program since 1984 has noted unmarked drums of toxics in a variety of locations.

At the time of the first inspection for the current EPA complaint, August 22, 1989, new charges suddenly collided with old in the slow process of EPA enforcement. The violations in the current complaint "are considered to be high priority...Also, EPA currently has an ongoing enforcement action against this facility," wrote Daniel J. Eden, in a letter to the EPA's Hazardous Waste Management Division, 10/17/89.

Sematech determined that those were wastes. They didn't need them any more...so they gave them to UT

On January 26 and 27 of 1989, Susan Adams, Assistant District Manager of the TWC, had responded to a hazardous waste spill at the Service Building, noting in her report that "wastes to be incinerated were stored in unlabeled, undated drums in an undesignated accumulation area at the Service Building on 24th and San Jacinto. A spill of waste solvent from an unlabeled, leaking drum at the Service Building on 1/10/89 brought to our attention the above mentioned waste management problems. That spill was cleaned up adequately, but no changes had been made in waste management procedures up to the time of the inspection two weeks later."

Further, the TWC inspector noted unmarked drums near a storm drain. "Hazardous wastes are stored in unlabeled and undated drums in an area where any spills would flow immediately to a storm drain. The storm drain has sand bags around it, but a more permanent solution should be found."

Over several years TWC investigators have reported random, unmarked containers of toxic chemicals found near labs, outside, or lost in storage. Edward Myers of the Bureau of Solid Waste Management, in July of 1984, found several containers of waste chemicals in a dumpster by the chemistry building. In December of 1985, District Manager John Young found deteriorating containers at BRC.

A letter dated December 22, 1987, from TWC inspector Susan Adams chastised the University for leaving drums of bulk solvents without labels or dates, and again in early 1989, "Several problems were noted, again this year, in the Chem/Rad Transfer Building [in the UT service complex]...Two partially filled drum packs were open. Several smaller containers and at least one drum were open and had no labels on them. Many smaller containers collected from individuals labs...also had dates older than 90 days and many were in poor condition. Also, what was reported to be non-hazardous waste was stored in the same area, but most of it had no labeling whatsoever."

In 1987, the Water Commission asked that all the containers at Balcones that were in poor condition with no labels be disposed of by January 1988. By August 1989, John Young, investigating a complaint, wrote that "Building 105 contained numerous labeled and unlabeled cans, bottles and drums. One drum had a 1984 accumulation start date. Several containers had leaked."

According to UT's Hazardous Waste Management Permit Application, the labs, the Service Building, Texas Student Publications and other hazardous waste generating facilities on campus accumulate waste in "satellite accumulation areas" until there is enough to call the Safety Office for a pick-up. The lab generally dates the drum from the time it is full. Within three days of a call, a trained hazardous materials handler is supposed to show up and take the material to the "Chem/Rad Transfer Building," permitted for storage of hazardous materials up to 90 days. Then a shipment goes to Balcones for storage or disposal.

The University is required under RCRA to keep records (manifests) of the wastes it moves from campus to Balcones, and then to hazardous-waste dumps. In case an emergency situation requires a quick identification of the material, UT is supposed to know what is in a drum at all points in the process.

UT's permit application claims that "since all shipments from off-site come from the UT main campus, there is no need for inspection, sampling, or periodic checks of analysis when these shipments arrive at the BRC." Charles Jamison of the Safety Office reported to an inspector, however, that BRC and main campus waste shipments have also been used to dispose of hazardous wastes from the Marine Science Center and from Fort Davis. "These facilities are not registered as generators and wastes shipped from the sites have not been manifested (recorded)," wrote the inspector.

In other words, UT claims that every drum of waste is labeled at the campus facilty that generates it, and assumes that people at Balcones do not need to double check the contents, yet investigators have consistently found anonymous drums in storage, and non-campus generators also send drums to Balcones for which they keep no records.

From Magnesium Residues to High Tech Toxics

Balcones Research Center currently stores all of UT Austin's hazardous wastes before final disposal. Complaints against BRC date back to well before the current regulatory system's fully documented investigations; the site has been charged with polluting Shoal Creek and the Edwards Aquifer, and the safety program has only the most rudimentary evacuation and clean-up plan for toxic spills.

Built on the sight of WWII magnesium plant, Balcones now houses some of the University's largest nuclear, chemical and microelectronics labs. The research site, purchased from the U.S. Army for $1.5 million, was established in the existing factory buildings, and the University dumped certain hazardous materials and discarded "empty" containers in the abandoned magnesium pits on the site. Now the University describes the "pit" as a "landfill", and included it in its 1985 application for a Hazardous Waste Management Permit.

Residents first investigated the effects of the lime pits on the local water supply as early as 1943, while the Defense Plant Corporation still held title to the land. According to a May 1943 memorandum, the then-titled State Board of Water Engineers investigated the plant for leaking mineralized effluent from the reservoir into Shoal Creek "resulting in the deaths of several cows and numerous fish." Mrs. George Shaffer filed a complain that her well water was no longer fit to drink.

The mineralized pits used for processing plant effluent had leached waste water through the limestone, affecting the spring water in local wells; the concentration of calcium chlorite, for example, increased by as much as 600 percent. When the plant manager asked that a new pit 1/2 mile west of the plant be considered for plant waste water, inspectors decided that effluent "would become part of the ground-water reservoir in the Edwards limestone and might eventually cause serious contamination of well and springs." Although plant operators proposed methods to correct the problem, the plant was soon after sold to the University.

In 1946, the University acquired the lease on the land with the help of then-Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, and eventually purchased it from the War Assets Administration in 1949. By the late 60s the BRC had developed the Defense Research Laboratories (now the Applied Research Lab), and expanded the site, but many of the labs remained housed in the original magnesium plant. As late as 1980, a report entitled The Development Concept noted, "BRC still must be characterized as underdeveloped. Many research units at BRC were located at minimal expense in old magnesium plan facilities which were never intended for research." As the University labs began to generate increasingly diverse hazardous waste streams, the lime pits from the magnesium plant came into use again as well.

In November of 1975, in response to reports of illegal-dumping into the old effluent processing pits, the Texas Water Quality Board (TWQB) renewed the investigation of the site. John Young and other found that empty cans and bottles that had contained hazardous substances were disposed of in small pits dug into the hardened magnesium slurry of a 4-5 acre basin. In addition, containers that could not be opened safely were exploded and buried at the site.

Although the geology department assured Young that the basin was watertight ("or essentially so" - TWQB memo 1/9/76), the Board agreed to continue the investigation "of not only the potential pollutional threat posed by the disposal of the 'empty containers,'" but also of the threat to the aquifer posed by the site itself. Between 1976 and 1978 the TWQB repeatedly tested nine wells surrounding the pit, and compared the results to tests run in the 1940's.

Toxic Waste Barrels

In his final report, Hydrogeologic Investigation in the Vicinity of the Balcones Research Center, May of 1978, Rod Kimbro wrote "The eight to ten acre waste disposal area located at the Balcones Research Center is impacting the quality of the shallow ground water in the vicinity of the waste disposal area and surface water quality in Shoal Creek. A potential exists for migration to deeper aquifers, i.e. Edwards limestone, through any one of the numerous faults located in the area. At this time, however, because the exact magnitude of the leachate plume being created by the waste basins is not well defined, because the basins may not have been the only areas of waste disposal at the Research Center, because the area surrounding the Research Center is now on 'city' water, and because the Research Center is a State agency dependent on the legislature for funds, no recommendation is being made."

At this time, according to Young, new EPA regulations divided solid waste control between the Health Department and the Water Commission, making the TWQB obsolete. The administration of state agencies and schools fell to the Health Department for a time. According to Peter Tadin of the Health Department, the investigation section only recently acquired enough investigators to do regular annual inspections of the sites under their jurisdiction. Meanwhile, no records of further action on Rod Kimbro's report could be found among Health Department files.

UT refers to the conclusions of this report in its 1985 permit application: "This study identified the material present as basically inert and non-hazardous calcium, magnesium, and sodium chlorides, sulfates, and bicarbonates." No mention is made here of Kimbro's assessment of the environmental impact of mineralization.

The diamond on the container is color coded, but the officers need to be trained as to what they mean and what they should do.

The University in 1983 hired its own company to complete a new study of the site, testing five wells in February and concluding its report in April. The report focused on "organic carbons" rather than mineralization, concluding that "the presence of organic contamination is highly unlikely."

UT Caution Sign

In 1984 the University collected samples itself, and had them tested for the presence of heavy metals. "In samples collected from three water wells surrounding the 'landfill' by the UT Austin Safety Office...the water met drinking water standards for asenic, barium, cadmium." No other action on the landfill appears in the Water Commission files, and the current application has been accepted provisionally, according to Young. Balcones now has interim waste management status, and reports that the landfill contains 3,000 pounds of waste.

Hazardous wastes are stored in unlabeled and undated drums in an area where any spills would flow immediately to a storm drain. The storm drain has sand bags around it, but a more permanent solution should be found

Give Us 30 Seconds of Your Time

Personnel training is probably the most important safety feature of any waste handling program, since the University regularly develops new wastes and not everyone on campus will know what to do with a particular toxic material. The law requires that employees receive classroom training and six months of documented on the job training, as well as annual updates. In addition, lab techs and professors should be trained in RCRA reporting requirements, so that toxics can be identified once they leave a lab.

The Water Commission, in its March 1990 inspection, found three Balcones personnel who had completed neither classroom instruction nor on the job training in the handling of hazardous materials under RCRA. The University admits that it did not keep records of the "training and or job experience ... given to and completed by facility personnel," and neither admits nor denies the charge "because it does not have the necessary information on which to base an answer." In a May 5, 1987 letter to the Water Commission from the EPA, William Taylor advised that the TWC issue the University a warning letter based on personnel training violation, as well as problems with UT's emergency plan.

In fact, very few people on campus are adequately tranined to handle hazardous wastes. The safety office, according to Florence MacLeroy, employs one full time person and two half time people for chemical pick-up at nearly 1500 labs campus wide. "There's bound to be problems," she noted in an interview in March. "Because of the EPA report, we may be able to get more people. We have been trying to get staff people for years. We have never gotten the kind of staff we need."

According to a letter written by Susan Adams, Feb. 24, 1989, "it often takes the Safety Office two months to move the waste from the satellite area to the Chem/Rad transfer building, far exceeding the three day limit." She further notes that this was an ongoing problem identified in an inspection more than a year earlier, 12/3/87.

In a 1989 Daily Texan interview, Charles Jamison also noted the need for more than three waste handlers. The University budgeted $568,089 for the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, which includes the Fire Marshal, an asbestos abatement program manager, radiation and occupationl safety, as well as the hazardous materials department. Other universities spend as much as $500,000 on hazardous materials procedures alone.

Bobby Cook, the business manager and administrator in charge of the safety office, said that he could not discuss any aspect of the hazardous waste handling program, under orders from Mel Hazelwood; and Don Decker, the department head, declared that he had, "no comments about anything." Florence MacLeroy, when contacted in late April refused further comments as well.

UT's austere approach to safety spending cannot be explained with the familiar cry, "lack of fund." According to the April 1989 "Development Plan for the Balcones Research Center," UT spent about $80 million constructing new labs at Balcones in the 1980s, and plans to spend about $100 million more before the year 2000. Since 1985, the University has installed at least two "clean rooms" (price tag: $20 million plus each) for high tech research at Balcones.

Making these facilities "clean" for microchips requires the heavy use of solvents that can damage the skin, liver, blood, lungs and central nervous system. Worse, these substances evaporate easily, forming dangerous air emissions and move quickly through most types of soil. While spending tens of millions on construction, the University refuses to replace the tiny corrugated metal buildings that have housed hazardous wastes for years, and tosses a mere pittance to safety procedures.

Time's ticking away...

In theory, the three person hazardous waste team is supplemented by a designated person in each lab who tags and stores hazardous wastes until enough accumulates for a pick-up. However, the procedure is voluntary, according to the water commission. "Since the system is voluntary, many laboratories that may generate hazardous wastes are not participating in the program," Adams wrote. In its 1988 response to the Water Commission, UT claimed that the system was not voluntary, but did not elaborate on any enforcement procedures. It acknowledged that some labs still did not participate, and that the Safety Office had recently sent out a new memo to encourage labs to begin proper labeling procedures.

As early as November 1984, Texas Department of Health (TDH) personnel demanded that TAs receive more training in hazardous waste handling, and asked the administration to send "a strongly worded letter" to department chairmen, emphasizing their responsibilities in this area. In the University's response, Charles Jamison defended the training of safety personnel but ignored the issue of TAs and other non-specialized people. The EPA issued a warning letter in this case, insisting that training programs be documented.

John Young, District manager of the Water Commission, noted that personnel training has been an ongoing problem for the University. "I don't know why the University has so much trouble with personnel training. I have pointed it out several times. Some kinds of violations are not seen as so serious, and not always enforced. At UT they have a history. The problem recurs and they correct it and it recurs."

According to training records available to the Water Commission, fewer than 50 people participated in the Hazard Communication Act training in 1988, and that training probably included no more than 30 seconds on proper disposal of hazardous wastes. Charles Jamison, in a Jan. 11, 1988 memo to then Safety Coordinator Tom Chisholm, asks that mention of the Chemical Waste Disposal Service be included in the training. "This would only involve 30 seconds or so and contain words to the effect that - The Environmental Health Section of the Safety Office is responsible for the proper disposal of chemical waste from campus. If your department generates chemical waste, contact us (if you haven't already) and we will send you an explanation of the procedures to follow."

In Case of Emergency: Shout, Run, Call 911

In case of an emergency spill, a toxic cloud, or an explosion the Safety Office is required to have a contingency plan.

The City of Austin Fire Department under SARA Title III and the City Fire Code, takes charges of hazardous materials emergency response for most waste generating facilities in Austin. It requires facilities to turn in maps of each area containing toxics, and estimates of the distance and direction of a particular chemical will spread over time. Many industrial parks create complex risk assessments for the fire department that include the proximity of dangerous chemicals to schools, roads and other public facilities.

The University, as a State Agency, however, falls under difference regulations and is not required to meet the city fire code, according to Carl Wren of the Austin Fire Department. "The University is not required to enforce the fire code, but we're seeing progress as far as cooperation," he said. Nor are laboratories required to provide the detailed emergency response information that industrial generators are must give to the city fire department. The University has contracted with two area fire brigades, who respond with equipment and manpower when called. Individuals at the site of a spill may or may not be able to give the fire fighters the kind of detailed information they need, however.

When the University renewed its Hazardous Materials permit application, it did not turn in an emergency plan at all, according to a TWC certified letter of August 6, 1990. The contingency plan originally provided by the University to the Water Commission in 1985 contained no risk assessment for the region surrounding Balcones, plume maps for the spread of different hazardous substances, or analysis of the aquifer. Further, it did not discuss hazards on the main campus at all, despite the dense population in close proximity to chemical storage areas.

When asked to enumerate the alarm and communication system for the Balcones storage area, the application briefly notes that "A yell can be easily heard from one building to the next." An inspection report for May of 1986 noted that the contingency plan did not contain an evacuation plan for facility personnel. The preferred method of communication with emergency officials is the "voice signal 'get out'" followed by a telephone call to 911, according to the plan. When asked in the 1985 application whether there were arrangements with State emergency response teams, with emergency contractors and equipment suppliers, the University answered "No."

When this reporter phoned the UT fire department to ask about its role in Hazardous Materials response, George Godward, the University Fire Marshall, said "I don't know anything about that. You need to call the UTPD."

The officers of the UTPD, most likely the first on the scene of a spill or accident, have received no training to date in the identification and response to campus hazardous wastes.

"We're trying to set up a training for about 60 officers now," said Lt. Gerald Watkins, "so we can identify by the color codes the kind of hazardous material we're dealing with. The diamond on the container is color coded, but the officers need to be trained as to what they mean and what they should do."

Currently the UTPD calls the Safety Office when they face an unknown chemical. However, the safety office does not have anyone on duty at night, and the police must call them at home. According to the officer, "if the safety office people don't know the material, we call 911."

The new training program may be implemented in the next few weeks. "I know we're lacking in some areas, but we're trying. We have one set up in May, but it's not finalized. We'll train our 65 or so people a few at a time. It may take four to six weeks to train everyone on this."

Safety Tips

If you see unmarked drums standing around, by dumpsters, in the hallways of your buildings, in the road, or anywhere call the good folks at the Texas Water Commission. The number is 463-7917, and John Young is our District 14 manager. Please field letters, calls and complaints to Don Decker of the Safety Office, but you might need to use campus mail since he is not interested in talking on the phone these days. For more information on the history of the University's toxic handling practices, the documents section in the basement of the Texas Water Commission at 16th and Congress contains memos, letters, investigations, and permits. Ask for the files for facility numbers 66154 and 66905.

Finally, and most important, if you see something about to blow call 911. That's what UT officials would do anyway. If there's no phone, just "duck and cover."