UConn to Conduct Environmental Study Regarding Research Waste Storage Facility

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The University of Connecticut will conduct an Environmental Impact Evaluation (EIE) in the coming months to help determine whether the current location of its industrial and research waste storage facility should be moved elsewhere on campus or remain in its current location.

The facility, known as the Main Accumulation Area (MAA), was established in 1989 in order to store chemical, low-level radioactive and biological/medical waste generated by the University’s academic research and teaching laboratories. It also sees a smaller amount of waste from other operations, such as UConn’s motor pool. The chemical waste is securely stored in the facility for not more than 90 days before being transported off-site for disposal by an EPA-permitted company. Biological waste is removed on a weekly schedule. Radioactive waste is limited to one shipment every 12-15 months, and consists of minimal amounts of low-level waste and laboratory debris, such as gloves and paper towels.

“The MAA is a common but sophisticated, highly-regulated facility that is staffed and monitored daily by professionals who safely collect and secure waste generated by the University before it is removed from campus,” said Stefan Wawzyniecki, manager of chemical health and safety at UConn. “However, some residents in the area have expressed concern that because the building is located in a drinking water watershed area, it could have some effect on the water supply reservoir, which is located six miles south of UConn’s campus.”

“It is important to note that in 23 years, there has never been a release of waste into the environment,” Wawzyniecki added. Even if a leak or spill of some kind did occur in the building, the building features multiple layers of containment capability, so no material would come in contact with the outside environment. The facility itself is separated from the Fenton River by a more than 400-acre tract of the UConn forest. There is no evidence to support the notion that this facility has or will affect any water supply.”

Nearly every research university in the U.S. has a similar operation, since it would be impossible to conduct research safely on campus without one. Such containment facilities are also commonly found at hospitals, secondary schools, and in the private sector.

Waste management at UConn and elsewhere is strictly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

Tests of drinking water quality are routinely performed by public water suppliers, like UConn, and water companies like the Windham Water Works, which owns the reservoir to which the Fenton River flows. There has never been any contamination as a result of the work performed in the MAA.

Had there been a leak at the MAA, the numerous safety measures in place at the facility would, by design, have prevented it from reaching any unprotected soil or water supply: all containers received into the MAA are placed into secondary containment, and some are even subject to a third level of containment. This means that in the event that the primary container breaks, it is contained by a backup container. The building used for storage is itself considered secondary containment, as it is designed with sump sub-flooring, which would prevent any release. When in use, the MAA is checked on a daily basis with those inspections documented.

Any hypothetical leakage or spill would have to breach three systems, each of which is designed to adequately capture the material from the original container. The buildings themselves are designed for hazardous material storage, with features including a structure designed to withstand fire for up to two hours, explosion-proof wiring, and fire-suppression systems. The MAA is alarmed and connected to the Public Safety response center. The University Fire Department is trained and equipped to handle emergency responses to spill incidents.

Nevertheless, several years ago, the University began to examine alternative sites for this facility in the interests of putting to rest any concern among area residents about water safety. Other possible locations for the facility were identified at the time, however, each was subsequently disqualified either for logistical reasons or because the site had been identified for another use. The cost of moving the facility would be between $3 million and $5 million.

“During the previous alternative site studies, we considered various factors in addition to the environment and public health and safety, including traffic impacts, site security, consistency with campus master plans and surrounding land use, operational efficiency, and cost,” said Richard Miller, UConn’s director of environmental policy, who managed those prior studies and conducted meetings of a multi-stakeholder advisory group. “After balancing all of these criteria and knowing the expense of moving the facility, which has never had a release to the environment, the current location was considered a viable alternative – in fact, it was third on our list of six locations. When the possible alternative sites that were rated first and second subsequently became unavailable, UConn decided to suspend the previous siting process.”

The University is now committing to revisit the analysis of alternative sites and will begin another EIE later this spring. Since the prior studies, circumstances have changed at several of the sites that were previously considered, while the safety and security of the current location has also improved. The EIE will again help UConn determine whether or not there is another suitable place for the building on campus, or if it should remain in its current location. The EIE process is expected to take approximately 9-12 months, and will include several opportunities for public comment and discussion.

“Whatever the outcome of the planned EIE, UConn’s neighbors should know that this facility is safe and secure at this location,” said Miller, “and will continue to be well-managed so that it does not represent a threat to the environment or our water supplies.”