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Mastering the problem of toxic waste is an SMU goal for the ’90s.
By Rebecca Sherman |

ANDRE VACROUX, THE NEW dean of engineering and applied science at Southern Methodist University, leans back from his paper-strewn worktable and waxes philosophical in his thick French accent about the realities of hazardous waste.

“Companies are beginning to be more responsible about what they put into the environment,” says the former Fulbright scholar who came to the United States in 1959 to study engineering.

Vacroux, 55, edges forward, peering from behind large, square glasses. “This is not just garbage we’re talking about, This is dangerous garbage. The oils. The chemicals. The lead in the playgrounds in West Dallas. You have to do something before it goes into the water and air.”

Doing something about all the “bad” garbage has been Vacroux’s mission since he arrived at SMU last year and launched one of the country’s first graduate programs in hazardous waste management. Now, some 34 students are enrolled in the program, taking classes like “The Fate and Transport of Contaminants” and “Air Pollution Management.”

“Dallas was a blank slate,” Vacroux says. “I believed that with all the industry and business in Dallas/Fort Worth, there had to be lots of environmental problems.”

He was right. Texas releases more toxic waste into the environment than any other state, with 13,000 businesses producing some form of hazardous garbage. Three thousand of those companies are located in the Metroplex.

Vacroux also noticed there were virtually no graduate environmental programs in North Texas. “Universities have a social responsibility to help take care of the environment,” he says. When SMU offered him the job of dean of engineering and applied sciences, he took it. leaving behind a 22-year tenure at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. His first order of business was to develop the new graduate program from the ground up.

The new dean picked the brains of local Environmental Protection Agency regulators. “They told me to forget the broad-based, traditional kind of environmental program that deals with specific problems with air or water. What Dallas really needs is a program that will teach toxic waste management.”

Vacroux heard the same thing from big business and industry. The result was a three-year master’s program in hazardous waste management, geared for professionals with science or engineering backgrounds. SMU’s board of trustees approved the program two weeks before classes opened last fall, and the response was immediate.

“We were amazed. We got literally hundreds of calls from people asking about the program,” remembers Ed Forest, the school’s director of graduate programs and research.

Not only is the program a first for SMU and Texas, but it fills a huge gap in the area of environmental education across the country since only a handful of programs concentrate solely on hazardous waste management.

This focus is critical, says Forest, since state and federal regulations have gotten much stricter. Industry’s knowledge of the new regulations and of new methods of handling waste hasn’t kept up with regulatory changes.

“Companies are worried,” Forest says. “They want to do good, to comply with the regulations, but at the least expense possible. You don’t want to break the law, but you don’t want to go out of business either.”

Balancing the two imperatives isn’t easy for most companies, especially when there just aren’t enough people trained to do the work properly. The United States has fewer than half the 100,000 professionals needed to manage toxic waste, says Jack Divita, deputy director of the EPA’s hazardous waste management regional division in Dallas. He says the country needs people who understand current environmental technology and who can develop new technology to recycle toxic wastes or neutralize them before they have a chance to pollute.

Trouble is, much of the toxic waste doesn’t get recycled or neutralized, but piles up in legal and illegal dump sites. The EPA estimates the country will need 22,500 people by 1995 just to clean up the mess.

Divita says regulatory agencies like the EPA and the Texas Water Commission have been short of trained professionals for years. “The EPA had been unintentionally providing the training grounds for industry,” he says. “We’d take new graduates in geology or hydrology and train them ourselves.” But companies would lure them away with bigger salaries.

Ed Forest says with so few trained professionals-U.S. schools graduate about 500 environmental engineers and scientists each year-many companies may be breaking the law, “There are a lot of people out there doing the work without sufficient background,” he says.

And breaking the law can have big consequences: Penalties often include fines from $2,500 per day up to a flat sum of $500,000 and prison terms from six months to 30 years.

The U.S. Department of Justice brought criminal cases against more than 700 polluters in the past eight years. In more than half of those cases, the officers or directors of the companies involved were prosecuted.

SO FAR, VACROUX’S NEW PROGRAM APPEARS successful. And, according to students, part of the appeal is the reality-based curriculum. Courses concentrate on the sources and materials of hazardous wastes, as well as regulations and the law. Two of the courses are even taught by EPA regulators.

That aspect appeals to Mari Chesser, an environmental engineer with Texas Instruments. “We can take real situations or problems that come up at work and bounce them off the EPA. That’s a whole lot better than just guessing what they want.”

Chesser, one of eight TI employees enrolled in the program, says in some areas the company uses chlorofluorocarbons to clean the circuit boards and computer chips manufactured by the company. CFCs are one of the primary causes of ozone depletion, but there’s a Catch-22: Usually the government doesn’t allow companies with defense contracts to use anything but CFCs. A team of five TI employees is working on a class project to develop a water-based cleaning solution that won’t pollute. “We hope that will be the first step in phasing out the use of CFCs at TI,” she says.

For some, the glut of toxic waste translates into future job security. James Irvin, a chemist with the city of Dallas who monitors air pollution, says the program will give him the kind of education he’ll need to weather tough times.

“Working for the city you worry about budget cuts and whether or not you’ll have a job from year to year. This field is going to be very stable in the future.”

Sean McPherson, a geophysicist with Oryx Energy, doesn’t deal directly with the hazardous wastes the oil and gas company produces during drilling, but he believes his future in oil and gas depends on his understanding of the problem. “The knowledge or lack of knowledge of hazardous wastes affects decisions you make on the job, no matter where you are.”

Additional education simply makes him more flexible, he says. “The oil industry is a volatile market. Part of why I’m doing this is to diversify.”

SMU’s program is also the first in the country to be offered long distance. One-third of the students already study via the engineering school’s existing TAGER (The Association of Graduate Education Research) program, an educational television network that broadcasts live to about 40 sites in North Texas. A similar program, The National Technological University, reaches approximately 400 sites nationally. Students anywhere in (he country can study by videotape. “We want to take care of Dallas/Fort Worth first, but this will allow us to reach a lot more people a lot faster,” says Vacroux.

The dean is confident that his program canhelp change the way businesses deal with theenvironment. “This is the first step. Peoplehave been polluting the Earth for centuries.We’re just beginning to address the problems.”

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