Volume 73, Number 42 | February 18 - 24, 2004

N.Y.U. signs environmental self-audit pact

By Albert Amateau

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

Above, Jane Kenney, E.P.A. regional administrator, left, and John Sexton, N.Y.U.’s president, signed off on the university’s self-audit agreement last week. Below, protestors called self-audits ineffective.

New York University and the N.Y.U. Hospital Center signed an agreement on Thurs. Feb. 12 with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to undertake a comprehensive environmental self-audit of all 160 N.Y.U. buildings, including medical facilities, in Manhattan.

By March 1, N.Y.U. will begin the self-audit, which covers all major federal environmental programs for air, water, pesticides, solid and hazardous waste, chemicals, toxic substances and community right-to-know, according to a joint statement issued by John Sexton, N.Y.U. president, and E.P.A. regional administrator Jane M. Kenney.

“N.Y.U. and the N.Y.U. Hospital Center want to be in the forefront of environmental compliance and this agreement with the E.P.A. recognizes that priority,” Sexton said.

However, representatives of the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Technical Staff at N.Y.U., Local 3882, passed out handbills outside the Feb. 12 signing ceremony accusing the university of violating guidelines in connection with disposing of human waste and body fluids from cadavers in the N.Y.U. Dental Center anatomy lab at the Brookdale Health Science Center on First Ave. at 25th St.

Waste and body fluids from cadavers “are mopped up and swept down the drain,” the union said, adding, “There are guidelines for dealing with toxic waste, and disposing of them into the sewer system is not one of them.”

The union protestors also charged that a woman union member working in the Dental Center anatomy lab was exposed to eight times the amount of formaldehyde. The union said the university failed to give her written notice of the exposure and failed to notify the union and environmental agencies as required by regulations. Greg Siccop, a union organizer, also said the Dental Center administration ordered the employee to return to work at the anatomy lab while the hazard still existed.

“This agreement with the E.P.A. gives N.Y.U. the green light to flout hard-won E.P.A. regulations that should have protected this worker,” Siccop said.

John Beckman, N.Y.U. spokesperson, replied this week that the anatomy lab does not dispose of toxic waste in the sewer system.

All staff members who work in the anatomy lab wear devices that indicate the level of formaldehyde exposure, said Beckman. The lab learned in January that a device worn by the technician one day in December indicated a level of formaldehyde exposure seven times the threshold set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, he said. “We certainly take this finding very seriously,” he said, adding that no other devices, except one worn by a faculty member, showed levels above the threshold. And virtually all of the sampling in the lab area also showed levels below the threshold, he said.

“It was the university that notified the employee about the result and we do not believe anyone ordered her back to the lab,” Beckman added. “It was her supervisors who reassigned her to other duties,” he said.

“There is no requirement that a report be made to OSHA or to the E.P.A,” said Beckman. “There is a requirement that we put in place a plan that will prevent exposure above the threshold and we have done that by changing procedure for the handling of cadavers, by stepping up our monitoring and by enhancing medical surveillance and training. The union will be sent the reports,” he added.

Under the agreement the university will conduct the audits, report any violations, correct deficiencies and move to prevent violation recurrences. The E.P.A. will waive penalties for violations that are self-disclosed, according to the agreement.

The self-audit agreement with the E.P.A. covers 14 N.Y.U. schools in its Washington Sq., Medical Center and College of Dentistry campuses. It includes the Tisch Hospital and Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine, which have more than 870 beds and serve more than 86,000 patients a year, and the Dental College with over 500 dental chairs and labs.

Ann Arlen, former Community Board 2 member who headed the board’s Environmental Committee, said the self-auditing agreement “seems to be an E.P.A move to put itself out of business.” The federal agency, she noted, has had serious budget cuts under the Bush administration and the self-auditing program, started under President Clinton, has expanded under Bush. “The E.P.A. says that one of the benefits of self-auditing is that it conserves E.P.A. resources,” Arlen said. “Well, if they have less resources, they’ll want to do less enforcement and put themselves out of business,” she reasoned.


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