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University Launches Major Environmental Initiative

The University has recently taken several major steps to integrate environmental considerations into its teaching and research activities, the operation of its facilities and its interaction with the local community.

This month, the University launched an Environmental Management System (EMS) for its Morningside Heights and Lamont-Doherty campuses to better manage and implement environmental policies. The EMS complements a recently enacted, trend-setting chemical tracking system that is one of the most innovative and comprehensive of its kind in a U.S. academic environment. In addition, Columbia University Medical Center is close to completing a self-audit this fall of its own environmental programs, including the handling of all hazardous waste in its laboratories.

The EMS, a flagship initiative, is a comprehensive set of programs for compliance assurance, pollution prevention and environmental training of students, faculty and employees. The system and its administrative management and oversight structure are described in a document that has been distributed to appropriate faculty and senior administrators and will be available online.

"This program will enable Columbia to provide a healthy and safe place to work, teach and conduct research, while at the same time minimizing the environmental impact of its activities and maintaining compliance with applicable federal, state and local regulatory requirements, agreements and permits," said David Hirsh, executive vice president for research at Columbia.

"The EMS addresses not just laboratories and classrooms, but the physical operation of the University, including heating oil storage and handling, water discharge and air emissions," said Loretta Greenholtz, assistant vice president for Environmental Health and Radiation Safety, whose office developed the EMS.

For example, the EMS details environmental and safety training for appropriate University personnel. That training will entail handling and disposal of hazardous and regulated materials in a comprehensive range of laboratories, classrooms and other facilities across the University, including The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of the Arts and Facilities Management.

The EMS document also contains a flowchart indicating how management oversight for environmental compliance is organized at Columbia, so that all members of the University community can clearly understand areas of responsibility and accountability.

Moreover, the EMS is a dynamic concept that will be implemented over a number of years. All members of the University community are being asked for their input.

"The EMS is a 'living' document," Greenholtz said. "The University will incorporate new areas of environmental compliance and stewardship as needed to support our researchers and the education of our students."

In addition to the EMS program, Columbia has developed a chemical tracking system, a "virtual stockroom" of sorts. This inventory management tool, which is now in place, enables the University to identify and date from purchase to disposal all chemicals, and allows different laboratories and departments to share materials, thereby saving money and reducing waste.

Finally, Columbia has developed a high school guidance program to raise awareness among students and teachers of hazardous waste management as it applies to the classroom. The program has three parts -- a film, an interactive CD and a reference manual -- and will be distributed and available to all high schools in New York state and Puerto Rico. The program will be available in Spanish as well as English.

These initiatives grew out of a concerted effort by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strengthen regulatory compliance by academic research institutions across the country. Over the past several years, the agency has conducted a national audit of such institutions, looking at their level of compliance with seven different areas of environmental regulations: air pollution, water pollution, hazardous waste, regulated waste, pesticide use, community right to know and underground oil storage tanks.

In the EPA region that covers New York City (region 2), Columbia is the first major research university to develop and implement a comprehensive environmental program in response to the audit. Implementation of the three new aspects of Columbia's environmental program is in partial settlement of an enforcement case brought by the EPA in the course of its audit. Other large research universities in the Northeast, including Harvard and MIT, are devising similar university-wide plans in response to their EPA audits.

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Published: Nov 12, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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