The University Record, April 25, 1994


by Harrison L. Morton, associate dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment, professor of forest pathology and director of Nichols Arboretum


This refrain is heard each time a member of a visiting basketball team is introduced at Crisler Arena. The same question might be asked here. In 1989 SACUA recommended that a committee be established to consider such issues as recycling, pesticides, indoor air pollution, and other timely environmental concerns. As a result, a task force was established with nine Universitywide members who labored for one year and issued a report to Vice President Womack in September, 1990. Beginning in the fall of 1991 an ad hoc environmental sub-committee was established as part of the Vice President’s Advisory Committee. This presently exists as a three-member standing sub-committee.

The overarching intent of the Committee is to help educate the University community and to some extent the greater public about the University’s environmental activities and interests, to take comments from those of us who are puzzled or concerned about environmental matters as they affect our work and living space, and to stimulate a campus dialogue. Over the last several years, the Committees have met many times, interviewed and queried staff members who have impact on environmental issues. We have published one or more articles in the Michigan Daily and the Michigan Reporter and have surveyed SACUA members.

The size and complexity of the University of Michigan generates many of our problems. Currently there are about 23 million square feet of space in 400 buildings. Maintenance of the buildings has fallen behind over the last 20 years, to the point where this deferred maintenance will cost $70 million to remedy. To those walking through the Diag, it is no surprise that we are in the middle of a very large construction and renovation activity, the most ambitious in University history, with over $400 million in current construction, and several hundred million more planned. Given our complexity, and the dedication we all have to get on with the job whether as a planner, secretary or faculty member, it is not surprising that environmental matters may go unnoticed. But it is imperative that we think about the well-being of our students, staff, and faculty—the whole community, so that we work and study in an environment which is safe, pleasant, and healthy.

What issues are there? Largely the same issues there were following our survey of SACUA members several years ago. These are continuing problems, not ones that are solved easily or quickly, but rather those that need continuous investigation and study. Central among these is the issue of air quality. Air quality issues concern both safety and comfort. Clean, fresh air allows us to function efficiently and intently without disturbance. Most of the problems which we have seen simply boil down to inadequate air movement, high humidity, and poor temperature control in buildings due to old or inefficient equipment. Specific examples include fume hoods in research labs which may not move the prescribed amount of air away from the worker, and renovation work which calls for the use of paints, solvents, adhesives, etc. while the building is occupied. At the same time there are regulations and standards which direct a more stringent policy on air quality and which are being taken into consideration at every step of new construction and renovation. As buildings become older, space uses change, use of computers and other heat-generating equipment has increased, and the air handling systems become less able to meet the original design goals efficiently. In addition, equipment and spaces become antiquated in terms of new regulations.

The University does not have a routine air-monitoring program; problems are determined by complaints. Given the financial constraints all of us work under this may not be surprising to you. Reports of “stale” air, odors, smoke or similar complaints are investigated quickly, perhaps within a day or two. Standard tests are used to measure anticipated agents and remedial action is taken if required. In many cases, temporary, unforeseen problems have arisen, such as diesel trucks parked with motors running and exhausting fumes into an adjacent building’s air intake.

Another environmental concern is the preservation of the green space on the campus. We all marvel at the space which has been available at the North Campus. Most of us agree that the preservation of green space—trees, shrubs, flowers, grass, turf, as compared to the “hard-scapes” of sidewalks, parking lots, and roof tops—is pleasing and helps us in our work. While many of us are unhappy at the apparent invasion of space on the Central Campus due to renovation and building in the Randall/Engineering/UGLI complex, the administration’s concept for the Central Campus calls for no net loss of green space. Preservation of green space may require us to think about greater efficiencies in space, taller buildings, and higher densities.

Major steps have been taken in energy conservation, particularly in the installation of energy efficient windows. Our energy costs run about $60 million a year, highest in the Big 10, helping to push up the cost of tuition and the indirect costs attached to research. A major concern of the Committee is the possibility that a move toward putting each School and College on its own revenue and cost base may force budget-conscious administrators into saving energy through ill-advised activities. We are particularly concerned about the possibility of reduction in air-handling fan speeds which will reduce energy costs, but at the expense of air quality.

During the Committee’s activities, we have received some questions about the safety of University golf courses given the use of pesticides. I can report that the University’s golf courses are in full compliance with procedures and policies to ensure safe handling of materials. Overall, pesticide use over the entire campus has decreased and the public’s right-to-know of potential hazards has increased.

A problem still needing resolution is the balance needed between the right-to-know by students, visitors, fire control agencies and others on the contents of buildings and laboratories versus the ability of researchers and managers to respond in a timely fashion. At a minimum we are moving toward identifying responsible individuals who should be contacted in the case of accidents in laboratories, as well as identifying laboratories in which there are hazardous or radioactive materials. Data safety sheets on chemicals used within laboratories are becoming increasingly available so that the danger of any particular material may be evaluated. Student and staff training, laboratory inspections, and health and safety plans are receiving increased attention. The University has not, however, figured out how to adequately communicate the diversity and rapid change of materials within chemical, pharmaceutical and medical laboratories. A chemical tracking database should be feasible given the wide availability of computers, but the follow-through of entering data and its ultimate usefulness is still in question.

Many other topics remain to be visited and revisited, including transportation alternatives on campus, pedestrian space and safety, the handling of mixed-waste materials, waste reduction, vehicular restrictions, micro-planning of public spaces, management for scarce and valuable resources such as water and energy, campus storm water runoff, proactive laboratory safety programs, and others.

We need to hear from the University community. We need to know of problems, perceived and real. Current committee members include Stuart Batterman, School of Public Health; John Gobetti, School of Dentistry; and Harry Morton, School of Natural Resources and Environment. All of us are reachable by e-mail. We have been able to resolve many of the problems that community members have identified. We are anxious to help preserve the best of what we have—and improve upon the worst.