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United States Environmental Protection Agency
Region 03 - Office of Communications and Government Relations
1650 Arch Street Philadelphia, PA 19103-2029
Phone 215/814-5100 Fax 215/814-5102

EPA Environmental News

Contact: Donna Heron (215-814-5113)

EPA helps prisons get up to speed on environmental compliance

by Samantha Fairchild, Director
Office of Enforcement Compliance and Environmental Justice

PHILADELPHIA – When we think of environmental issues, correctional facilities with their security fences and sprawling campuses don't immediately come to mind.

However, correctional institutions have many environmental matters to consider in order to protect the health of the inmates, employees and the community where the prison is located. Some prisons resemble small towns or cities with their attendant industries, population and infrastructure.

Supporting these populations, including their buildings and grounds, requires heating and cooling, wastewater treatment, hazardous waste and trash disposal, asbestos management, drinking water supply, pesticide use, vehicle maintenance and power production, to name a few potential environmental hazards.

And the inmate training programs offered at most institutions also have their own unique environmental challenges. A dry cleaning operation, for example, would use perchloroethylene, a hazardous material, to clean fabric. A furniture refinishing shop or a woodworking shop would use methylenechloride to strip off old varnish or polyurethane to protect the raw wood. Both of these are hazardous materials that need special handling.

To raise awareness among prison administrators, the US Environmental Protection Agency has been inspecting correctional facilities to see how they are faring. From the inspections, it is clear many prisons have room for improvement.

After analyzing inspection results, it became apparent to EPA officials that most prisons have many of the same environmental problems. As a result, the EPA is working with prisons to bring them up to speed on environmental requirements.

Some of the common problems found by EPA inspectors included the following:

What specific environmental regulations apply to correctional facilities? It depends on what activities take place. Is there a wastewater treatment plant? Does it generate or dispose of hazardous waste? Does it operate an incinerator?

The following is a general summary of the environmental compliance issues that EPA inspectors cover when they visit corrections facilities. However, keep in mind that this list is just an overview. Like industrial plants, it is critical that prisons employ or contract with a full-time environmental professional, who can review their operations on a regular basis and raise red flags if something is awry. He or she should also be knowledgeable about the state's specific requirements, especially in areas that are not covered by federal law, such as solid waste (trash) disposal and recycling.

Oil Storage Tanks – Most prisons are likely to have underground or aboveground storage tanks with very large capacities to store heating oil and/or gasoline to fuel vehicles. Underground storage tank leaks are one of the major culprits in groundwater contamination, which in turn, can impact the drinking water if the facility uses well water. Tanks must meet current standards, such as leak detection, spill and overfill protection and secondary containment, and they must be registered with the appropriate state agency. In addition to meeting tank standards, prisons must keep on file a certified, up-to-date spill prevention plan. For more information see the Oil Program Center.

Hazardous Waste – Correctional facilities generate hazardous waste in many of their buildings and must hire a transporter to properly dispose of it. Every facility should have systems in place for proper identification, safe storage and timely disposal of these wastes. This is a violation that can result in a substantial penalty. For more information about hazardous waste regulations.

Air Protection – If correctional institutions have smokestacks for boilers and incinerators, they need to be sure that the air emissions meet state permit limits. If the facility has pollution control equipment, it must be operating properly. If the facility is doing any renovations involving asbestos or lead paint removal, the project must be done by the book using a certified contractor. Repairs on air-conditioners or refrigerators must be done by a certified technician to restrict the amount of refrigerants released into the atmosphere. Refrigerants degrade the earth's protective ozone layer. For more information about air protection regulations.

Water Protection – Correctional facilities might have their own wastewater treatment plant to handle sewage. These plants require permits from the state, and their discharges must meet permit limits. The wastewater treatment sludge must be disposed of properly, as well. If the facility has its own drinking water supplies either from a drinking water plant or from a groundwater well, it must be sampled regularly for contaminants. If the facility is on the public water supply, then it is the water supplier's responsibility to do the sampling. For more information about water protection regulations.

Pesticide Use/Storage – Prisons that have agricultural programs often run farms that use and store pesticides. They must be applied and stored according to the label's instructions. In rare cases, a facility might manufacture a pesticide, and in that case, it must be registered with the EPA. For more information about pesticide regulations.

Community Right-to-Know – The EPA requires that facilities using or storing toxic chemicals over threshold quantities to report them to state and local emergency planning agencies. This reporting is important in case of a fire, explosion or chemical leak. Also, if the facility releases into the environment chemicals above a certain amount, those must be reported to the EPA for inclusion in the agency's Toxic Release Inventory. Both of these requirements satisfy the community's right-to-know what chemicals are in their neighborhoods. For more information about the Toxic Release Inventory.

Wetlands – These marshy areas that filter contaminants and prevent flooding are federally protected and cannot be altered or filled without a federal permit. So, if construction plans call for a new building, annex, athletic field, or any other activity that would disturb wetlands, a special permit from the Army Corps of Engineers is necessary. For more information about Wetlands regulations.

Under EPA's innovative audit policy, prisons that come forward to report their violations can reduce, and in some cases, eliminate penalties as long as;

  1. the violations cause no direct harm to public health or the environment;
  2. they are corrected immediately; and
  3. the facility has an overall good track record.

The audit policy was developed as an incentive to do self-audits for compliance with all environmental laws.

Or, if a correctional institution has already been cited by the EPA, it may offset penalties with supplemental environmental projects (SEPs), which benefit the surrounding community. SEPs, which benefit public health or the environment, are actions taken by a company or facility that are in addition to what is required to come into compliance with environmental laws.

In addition to mandatory environmental compliance, the EPA encourages institutions to adopt voluntary programs to conserve resources and reduce pollution. These programs not only preserve and protect the environment, they also save huge sums of money in the long run.

The EPA has 20 separate volunteer opportunities, collaborating with more than 7,000 businesses and institutions nationwide. Volunteer partners have succeeded in conserving water and energy, reducing greenhouse gases, toxic emissions, solid and hazardous waste, indoor air pollution and pesticide risk.

A popular program is EPA's Energy Star Building program that protects the environment and saves money through energy efficiency. It helps to reduce carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and small soot particles that contribute to smog and acid rain. Institutions can reduce the cost of running their buildings by 30 percent.

Another very effective pollution prevention tool is EPA's WasteWise, a voluntary program that helps facilities eliminate costly trash disposal, benefiting their bottom line and the environment. WasteWise is flexible, allowing partners to design their own trash reduction programs that are tailored to their needs.

Participants range from small local governments and nonprofit organizations to large, multi- national corporations and universities. From the programs's inception in 1994 through 1998, waste reduction has increased from about a million tons per year to approximately eight million tons per year.

As government regulators begin to focus more closely on compliance, so too must correctional facilities take stock of their environmental contribution – to either correct violations before they cause a health risk, or to go many steps further by participating in one of EPA's voluntary programs. For more information on compliance and volunteer programs, or EPA's Clearinghouse.

To get more information on how to self disclose environmental violations at your facility, call your regional EPA enforcement office:

Region Contact
Region I (CT, ME, NH, RI, VT) Joel Blumstein (617-918-1777)
Region II (NJ, NY, PR, VI) John Wilk (212-637-3918)
Region III (DE, DC, MD, PA, VA, WV) Samantha Fairchild (215-814-3447)
Region IV (AL, FL, GA, KY, MS, NC, SC, TN) Bill Anderson (404) 562-9680
Region V (IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI) Bill MacDowell (312-886-6798)
Region VI (AR, LA, NM, OK, TX) Charles Sheehan (214-665-2175)
Region VII (IA, KS, MO, NE) Becky Dolph (913-551-7281)
Region VIII (CO, MT, ND, SD, UT) David Rochlin (303-312-6892)
Region IX (AZ, CA< HI, NV, AS, GU) Leslie Guinan (415-744-1339)
Region X (AX, ID, OR, WA)

Jackson Fox (206-553-1073)

Mid-Atlantic Office of Enforcement, Compliance, and Environmental Justice
OECEJ Home | Mid-Atlantic Region Home


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