The Academic Laboratory Exception

By Scott Roberts

Part One: Determining Eligibility

The federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, usually referred to as “RCRA”, governs the storage and disposal of hazardous waste, including hazardous medical waste. In addition to generally applicable regulations, RCRA provides a set of alternative rules, called the “Alternative Requirements for Hazardous Waste Determination and Accumulation of Unwanted Material for Laboratories Owned by Colleges and Universities and Other Eligible Entities Formally Affiliated with Colleges and Universities”, 40 C.F.R. 262, Subpart K. This alternative set of rules, sometimes referred to as the “Academic Lab Exception” or simply “Subpart K”, provides eligible academic laboratories with the option of complying with a less onerous set of requirements. These alternative requirements reflect the fact that academic laboratories are generally low volume waste generators compared to the industrial generators typically regulated under RCRA.

On its face, the Academic Lab Exception applies only to those few states that have not been granted the authority by EPA to implement their own hazardous waste laws. Nonetheless, many states still incorporate the federal Academic Lab Exception into their rules by reference. For example, Michigan’s hazardous waste laws are governed by Part 111 of Michigan’s Natural Resource and Environmental Protection, which supersedes the federal RCRA program. Part 111 in turn incorporates the Academic Lab Exception in R 299.9313 and makes the state department of environmental quality, and not the EPA, responsible for enforcing the rules.

To determine whether a specific laboratory is eligible for the Academic Lab Exception, an entity must first determine whether the laboratory is one of three types that qualify for the exception. Upon determining that a laboratory meets one of the three types of eligible laboratories, an entity must then determine whether the lab meets the definition of a “laboratory”. The rules define “laboratory” as “an area owned by an eligible academic entity where relatively small quantities of chemicals and other substances are used on a non-production basis for teaching or research […] and are stored and used in containers that are easily manipulated by one person.” Under this definition, not only would scientific laboratories be considered “laboratories,” but photo laboratories, university farms, field laboratories and even art studios would also be able to qualify as “laboratories” under the Academic Lab Exception.

Finally, in order to be regulated under Subpart K, the eligible entity must notify the EPA Regional Administrator (or in the case of Michigan, the state DEQ Director) of the entities choice to be regulated under Subpart K. In addition, while the Academic Lab Exception applies regardless of the laboratory’s volume generator status, the laboratory will also need to qualify by amount, which will be discussed in Part Two of this series.