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Wegenke: Voluntary environmental audits could be money-saver for state's private colleges

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON -- In an effort to save money and stay ahead of possible sanctions by regulators, the state’s private colleges have begun voluntary environmental health and safety inspections on their campuses.

“Not only does this make good business sense in terms of risk management, but it also shows that we care about the environment and want to be good neighbors,” said Rolf Wegenke, president of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

He said he does not anticipate the audits will turn up any toxic “tubs of sludge.”

Wegenke said the agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state’s Department of Natural Resources took about 10 months to negotiate. The campus audits started earlier this month.

He said it was prompted by a federal law change requiring colleges to meet many of the same requirements that previously applied to only businesses and industry. The inspection program is modeled on one pioneered by private colleges in Pennsylvania, he said.  

“It just makes sense for WAICU to take the lead on this,” he said. “We are ahead of the curve, but I think this has more to do with who we are rather than this being a governmental mandate.

“All of our colleges emphasize the environmental ethic… and conserving our environment is part of our mission,” he said. “We wanted to walk the walk, not just talk the talk in how we operate and be sensitive to the health and safety of our students.”

Wegenke said the agreement calls for the schools to conduct the self-inspections, which will be done by trained personnel from other colleges following state and federal guidelines.

As part of the pact, the schools have committed to promptly correcting any violations and have agreed not to appeal any EPA or DNR mandates, a decision that Wegenke said raised eyebrows among some WAICU board members.

He said the training and inspections will cost an average of $50,000 for each campus. He said he could not predict how much money the program will save the colleges.

The DNR and EPA will benefit, he said, because the association's self-audits mean they will not have to hire new inspectors.

He said DNR inspectors will review the disclosure reports and work with the EPA to confirm compliance with both state and federal environmental laws.  If the colleges clean up any problems within the time required by regulators, he said they will avoid any potential fines.

In some ways, the audits are similar to the state’s Green Tier program, which gives companies that meet and exceed environmental standards regulatory flexibility, Wegenke said.

He praised Gov. Jim Doyle and legislators for enacting the bi-partisan Environmental Improvement Program in 2004, which allows for voluntary inspections.  

DNR Secretary Matt Frank said he supports the WAICU plan and called it a  “credible way to assure high levels of statewide compliance.”  

Tinka Hyde, the EPA regional director for enforcement and compliance, said her agency welcomes the “opportunity to work with Wisconsin private colleges on a smart, comprehensive approach to environmental management.”

Wegenke said the program goal is to inspect four colleges per semester.  Auditors will look at compliance levels with federal environmental standards including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Community Right-to-Know-Act.  

The participating schools in this agreement include:  Alverno College, Beloit College, Cardinal Stritch University, Carroll University, Carthage College, Concordia University, Edgewood College, Lakeland College, Marian University, Marquette University, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Mount Mary College, Northland College, Ripon College, St. Norbert College, and Silver Lake College.

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