It's easy for Kansas University officials to say that they take violations of Environmental Protection Agency regulations seriously, but their actions say otherwise.
The EPA is threatening to fine KU after discovering for the second time in three years problems with the way campus labs handle and store potentially hazardous substances. Not only do problems exist now; at least some of the same problems existed in 2005, according to EPA officials.
"When you find the same things, it shows there is a pattern," said an EPA official. "It shows there really haven't been institutional things done to correct the problem."
Before KU or anyone else dismisses the EPA violations as overzealous government regulation, here's a question to consider: What would happen to Kansas State University's hopes of landing the new National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility if that university were cited for the same kind of problems found at KU?
The answer seems pretty clear. The lab that KSU and Manhattan are hoping to attract would deal with many deadly toxins. Any hint of laxity in how the university stores or disposes of materials used in its labs almost certainly would take it out of the running.
The problems KU is having with the EPA are not insignificant. They apparently haven't resulted in any serious injuries or incidents, but when university employees are unable to even identify for an EPA inspector what is in several unlabeled bottles in the lab, the possibility that something could be mishandled is very real. Inspectors also noted several sets of chemicals stored together that, if mixed, could react in a way that triggers a fire or explosion.
In addition to the safety implications of this situation, one also has to wonder whether citations and possible fines from the EPA will have - or perhaps already have had - a negative impact on KU's reputation and its ability to attract research grants in certain areas.
Despite their claims to the contrary, the fact that KU has been cited twice in three years for some of the same problems also indicates that KU leaders aren't taking this situation as seriously as they should. If they aren't sufficiently impressed with the safety and environmental issues raised by the EPA, maybe the potential effect of those findings on research funding will get their attention.