ALBANY — State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is urging State University administrators to address “weaknesses” in safeguarding the system’s students and staffers from hazardous materials stored on its campuses.
State auditors, according to a report released by the comptroller, identified numerous concerns after inspecting the systems used for storing chemicals and toxic substances at campuses in Plattsburgh, Oneonta, Cobleskill, Buffalo, Stony Brook, New Paltz and the Polytechnic Institute in Marcy.
“Weak oversight of hazardous materials could jeopardize the health and safety of students and campus communities,” DiNapoli said in a statement accompanying the audit. “SUNY needs to do a better job to ensure these items are kept under lock and key.”
The brunt of the report’s criticisms was aimed at the University at Buffalo campus — with the largest SUNY enrollment and faculty population of any campus in the system. The audit noted the attitude of administrators was “concerning,” noting they were “not open and responsive to the issues we raised” during the scrutiny.
Due to its big enrollment and the volume of chemicals it purchases, the Buffalo campus is “more vulnerable” to risks than the other SUNY schools, the auditors warned.
In replying to audit director Brian Reilly, SUNY Chief Financial Officer Eileen McLoughlin, disagreed with several of the findings and argued that DiNapoli’s team “did not look at the multiple layers of controls in place across SUNY campuses to safeguard the campus community.”
She added: “SUNY commits significant resources, provides substantial oversight and takes numerous preemptive measures, including routine laboratory safety training and emergency drill activities, to help ensure the health and safety of the campus community.”
SUNY’s procedures for storing such materials are also regularly reviewed by various federal and state agencies, she pointed out.
The report documented what the auditors called “risks” at the SUNY Plattsburgh campus, where the college has just one person responsible for both placing hazardous materials orders and receiving the items after they are shipped to the school.
“This lack of segregation of duties across parts of the purchasing process increases the risk of error, waste and otherwise inappropriate activity, which can go undetected,” the audit stated.
DiNapoli’s team suggested that SUNY Plattsburgh administrators could lessen the risks by separating those responsibilities among employees.
But the same report also suggested the campuses were achieving the safety expectations for storing the potentially dangerous materials.
The audit, for instance, acknowledged the Plattsburgh and Cobleskill campuses have “adequate controls” over their inventories of hazardous substances.
The auditors, though, found that inventories of the materials were not kept at some labs at the Oneonta campus.
Around the clock
At the same time, the Oneonta and Cobleskill campuses were reported to have updated and complete emergency response plans, according to the comptroller’s office.
McLoughlin said some SUNY campuses have around-the-clock fire marshals and hazardous materials teams trained to detect the presence of gases, vapors and other substances, and have access to gear for decontamination and addressing leaks.
The comptroller’s staff noted that at one unidentified SUNY school, campus police officers advised there was “a lack of administrative support related to the implementation of tighter access controls.”