Dumping Off Harvard's Waste---Radioactive, That Is

They knew they had a problem last May. Down in Barnwell, South Carolina, local residents and state officials decreed that enough was enough. And they closed down the only radioactive waste disposal site in the East equipped to handle the sludge that university labs were sending their way. Closed it down, that is, to everybody but South Carolina and its neighboring states. Then the word floated up through the tobacco fields and hit Cambridge like Three Mile Island hit the folks at Babcock and Wilcox. One official in the Northeast called down to once-amiable Barnwell and tried to get them to change their minds. "We're not even third cousins anymore," came the curt reply.

At Harvard, they were scared that experiments which were producing the low-level radioactive waste would have to be stopped. Joe B. Wyatt, vice president for administration, recalls that the Barnwell shutdown "sort of left those of us in the East without a solution." Parker L. Coddington, director of government relations, is a little more blunt. "If you've got a dump suddenly closed, you can have this stuff coming out of your ears before you know it," Coddington exclaims. "Things got caught in midstream," he added. "For a while there we couldn't ship it and we couldn't store it." But Harvard's labs and hospitals didn't slow down their research efforts. The University gritted its teeth, opened its wallet up wide and started to ship the radioactive waste out to Hanford, Washington. Days later, a committee of officials from all sectors of the University sat down to consider the situation. If anything concrete emerged from the session, it was a feeling that the problem would get worse before it got better.

This week, that same group of University officials will gather again to assess the dilemma that Harvard and other universities are facing. If there really is "no crisis at this point"--as Robin Schmidt, vice president for government and community affairs, explained last week--then there are at least problems. The number of experiments in Harvard's medical schools and at nearby Harvard-affiliated hospitals that produce hazardous wastes are soaring. Both federal and state lawmakers have regulations on the drawing board which could exacerbate an already-tense situation. The costs of shipping and storing wastes are rapidly increasing, while political pressures all over the country are mounting.

Last May's shutdown is only symptomatic of Harvard's most pressing waste disposal problem: low-level radioactive wastes. University labs produce all sorts of radioactive by-products--from chemicals to contaminated papers to glassware and animals used in experiments. In the medical area alone, says Coddington, labs and research experiments are producing more than 1000 gallons of toluene, a frequently used chemical that is both radioactive and highly flammable after experimentation. Each year, the labs must also dispose of more than four and a half million vials which come in contact with toluene.

Like most Boston-area colleges, Harvard contracts with the Interex Corporation of Natick, Mass. to haul away its gallons of radioactive sludge. Because it has jurisdiction over the entire medical area as well as portions of 15 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals, the Unitversity is the area's largest college producer of low-level wastes, Interex spokesman Joseph Rosenberg explains. In 1978, Interex hauled away about 3500 30-gallon barrels of Harvard-generated liquid sludge, for about $50 a barrel. Now, says Jacob A. Shapiro of the University's office of environmental health and safety, Harvard is paying about twice that to haul its wastes all the way to Washington. Rosenberg says "it is very, very likely that costs have doubled or tripled" in the last year. Downriver at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), officials spent about $30,000 in 1978 to haul away radioactive sludge. This year, says Murray Bolton, a radiation safety officer at MIT, his office budgeted the same amount. But costs have tripled and, he adds sighing, "We're not going to make it." And these are just shipping costs. Washington officials say private users like Harvard must pay about $16 a gallon to complete disposal once their sludge reaches the Hanford site. The total price tag: an estimated $1.8 million in 1978--and costs are expected to triple this year.

Shapiro describes the problem as "an Alice in Wonderland situation." Universities, he explains, produce very low-level wastes but they must ship them across the country to a place "that should be reserved for high-level materials." With Barnwell effectively shut down, only Hanford and a site in Beattie, Nevada are still taking low-level deposits. At Hanford, officials are already concerned, because containers not meant for more than five-year storage are being misused. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials are considering only one new low-level disposal site--the Lion, Kansas salt mines, once ruled unfit to store high-grade nuclear sludge. "We badly need more sites," says Timothy Johnson, associate professor of political science at MIT who assisted in a White House study of the radioactive waste problem. "Existing sites are going to fill up and the demand keeps increasing," Johnson frets. An inter-agency council established by President Carter--which will recommend a Department of Energy-sponsored program--has still not issued its findings.

The real solution, both Harvard and MIT safety officers concur, is to local, low-level dumping sites. There are hundreds of sites around the country that could technically qualify as low-level dumping sites, says Greenwood. But as experience all over the nation has demsonstrated, this is one idea that sounds great on paper but is nearly impossible to implement. The problem, in a word, is political: Shapiro says, "everybody is scared of the public." "There's been a major search in the state for location of dumping sites," says Coddington. "But nobody wants a dump in his backyard--or anywhere near it," he adds. Rosenberg predicts that Western areas like Beattie and Hanford may pull a Barnwell. "They resent the fact that New England says, 'We will not allow a burial site in our area,'" Rosenberg asserts.

In the State Legislature, meanwhile, the Natural Resources Committee is considering H.R. 6716, a bill "regulating the generation, transportation, storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous wastes." Among other things, the bill promises public hearings in areas marked for potential dumping sites. If state regulations aren't enough, Harvard has Cambridge to think about. The last time a similar situation occurred--when Cambridge city officials temporarily blocked recombinant DNA experiments because of potential dangers to the community--town-gown tensions were rubbed raw. "It's not a local problem at this point, but it could be in the future," says Robin Schmidt, vice-president for government and community affairs. Schmidt grouses: "if it gets into the political process six weeks before a local election," he says, it could impair rational consideration of the issues. City Hall observers fear that if City Council candidates get ahold of this, "all hell will break loose."

The alternative to shipping wastes away is on-site disposal. Timothy Johnson, project manager in the waste management division of the NRC, says the commission is currently looking for methods of solidifying and incinerating radioactive wastes. The University of Maryland, for example, is considering building a $150,000 incinerator for low-level sludge, Johnson says. Shapiro says Harvard has heard about such ideas, but has nothing on the drawing board at the moment. "Incineration is the way you're going to have to go," he adds. However, as Johnson explains, such techniques require a large capital investment and university budgets do not normally allow such expenses. Under the current system--even worse--the NRC would need two to three years to examine and approve an on-site disposal facility. And Coddington hammers home the underlying problem: even given lack of community opposition, "some of this stuff simply cannot be managed on site."

Radioactive wastes are the current gloomy spectre, but all types of hazardous wastes may haunt officials in the future. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently considering regulations to change waste disposal procedures. Should the regulations be implemented, says Carl Gerber of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, the number of wastes defined as "hazardous" will expand. The proposed EPA rules, says Coddington, are "written with an industrial setting in mind." The typical industry, he says, deals with tens of thousand of gallons of only a few hazardous materials. "But in a health laboratory," he continues, "you have an infinite variety but in smaller amounts." Industries, moreover, carefully control the number of people exposed to hazardous materials. The EPA's required paperwork alone might wreak havoc; "where you've got a huge number of people encountering toxic or carcinogenic substances, record-keeping problems are magnified," says Coddington. Harvard's government relations office is lobbying to make the rules more flexible. An EPA spokesman says the agency is now responding to institutional comments on its proposals and has stopped accepting further outside opinions. Schmidt insists, however, Harvard will be heard. "If we have something to say that adds to the debate, I'm sure it will be read and considered," he says confidently.

Aside from these concerns, Harvard's major concern is financial. John I. Clemons, safety engineer in the medical area office of environmental health and safety, estimates that about 30 to 40 per cent of Harvard's medical research produces some kind of hazardous waste. "At the moment there is no problem," Clemons says. But he quickly adds that the EPA regulations may generate substantial problems, including cutbacks in research projects. The proposed regulations would apply to infectious wastes--those generated by hospitals. A study by Clemons' office indicates that, if the EPA regulations are implemented as proposed, a Harvard-affiliated hospital which currently spends about $50,000 annually for disposal of hazardous wastes would have to spend $3 million a year. The new regulations, warns Shapiro, "are going to almost bankrupt anybody in a research lab."

Harvard's, and the nation's, quandary has only just begun. As we learn more and more, says Schmidt, "things that we thought were really harmless are more harmful than we thought." Up to this point, Coddington says, both the federal government and the University have attacked the hazardous waste issue piecemeal. Coddington believes Harvard's "each tub on its own bottom" philosophy--giving each school policy autonomy--has prevented the formation of a University-wide policy. "We have not attacked the problem in a coordinated way," he says. Federal officials are equally frustrated. While the EPA, NRC and other agencies struggle to promulgate rules and regulations, jurisdictional disputes are likely to erupt. Some are optimistic that disposal problems will be resolved, but others are not. "It's pure anarchy," says one official who asks not to be identified, "and everyone's going to suffer for it."