Water Quality

The Institute’s activities can effect the quality of water in a variety of ways. There are a variety of programs and requirements designed to minimize adverse impacts to this precious resource which effect work in labs and behind the scenes in related infrastructure.


Clean Water Discharges

The waste water discharges from the MIT Cambridge campus ultimately end up at the Deer Island treatment facility which treats water from throughout the MWRA district.  Discharges of clean water to their system raises their costs and threatens capacity limits of the facility.  We are therefore banned from discharging clean water without their permission.


Water Vacuum Aspiration

Water aspiration is an inexpensive way to generate small vacuum which can be helpful with transferring or handling small amounts of liquids.  These devices are susceptible to contamination from the material being transferred and represent an unnecessary use of clean water.  Their use has been banned under our discharge permit. 

The use of vacuum aspiration devices which use water flow to generate a vacuum is prohibited in our discharge permit because they are seen as an un-necessary use of clean water and they have great potential to contaminate the water with the material being aspirated.  These devices should be removed from service if discovered in a lab.


Cooling Water And High Volume Processes

Discharges of high volumes of clean water is also prohibited due to capacity concerns of the treatment facility.  If you have cooling water needs or other clean water discharges, please contact the EHS office to discuss permitting options.


Sink Disposal/ Wastewater

The wastewater from laboratory sinks, floor drains, and other areas within MIT buildings enters the public sanitary sewerage system, where it flows to the treatment system on Deer Island (in Boston Harbor) that is operated by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). There the wastewater receives primary and secondary treatment before being discharged to the Atlantic Ocean through a 9.5-mile outfall tunnel.

To protect water quality and the biological treatment processes, the MWRA enforces strict limits on contaminants and pollutants in the water that is discharged to the sanitary sewers. MIT is legally bound by these discharge limits, and conducts regular testing of its effluent to document compliance, with the results submitted to MWRA. Any exceedance of the discharge limits could subject MIT to administrative, or even criminal, penalties.

All members of the MIT community are responsible for maintaining acceptable quality in our wastewater discharges. Laboratory personnel in particular must make special efforts to keep certain items out of the sinks and floor drains. Questions about these policies should be directed to the Environmental Management Program (452-EHSS or 45(617) 452-3477). Described below are the substances that may be disposed of through drains and those materials that are prohibited from sink disposal.


Allowed Discharges Are Described Below.  All Other Materials Must Be Collected And Managed As Hazardous Waste.

  • Soaps/detergents
  • Non mercury Bleach/Wescodyne™/Cidex™ /Quatricide® solutions
  • Aqueous, soluble and dispersible radioactive isotopes into designated sinks or pipe openings within established limits (detailed lists posted at the designated sinks)
  • Infectious/Biological materials that have been properly treated as described in each laboratory’s registration protocols
  • Non-contaminated growth media
  • Purified biological materials such as amino acids and proteins in aqueous or buffer solutions
  • Non contaminated sugars and sugar alcohols (polyols) such as glycerol, xylitol and sorbitol
  • Buffer solutions
  • Spent photo developer (not fixer)
  • Inorganic salts for which both the cations and anions are listed in the following table:
Cations Anions
Aluminum, Al 3+ Borate, BO 3 3-, B 4O 7 2-
Ammonium, NH 4 + Bromide, Br -
Calcium, Ca 2+ Carbonate, CO 3 2-
Cesium, Cs + Chloride, Cl -
Lithium, Li + Bicarbonate, HCO 3 -
Magnesium, Mg 2+ Bisulfite, HSO 3-
Manganese, Mn 2+ , Mn 3+ , Mn 4+ , Mn 7+ Fluoride, F -
Potassium, K + Hydroxide, OH -
Sodium, Na + Iodide, I -
Strontium, Sr 2+ Nitrate, NO 3 _ , Nitrite, NO 2 _
Tin, Sn 2+ Oxide, O 2-
Titanium, Ti 3+, Ti 4+ Phosphate, PO 4 3-
Zirconium, Zr 2+ Sulfate, SO 4 2- , Sulfide, SO 3 2-

These guidelines are available as a 8.5X11 inch sticker


Oil Spills And SPCC Plan


The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) Oil Pollution Prevention Regulations require that any facility that meets certain oil storage thresholds have a Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) Plan. MIT has developed a campus-wide SPCC Plan to deal with oil spills that may reach the Charles River. The regulations require that MIT's SPCC plan address all oil storage containers  or equipment with a capacity of 55 gallons or more.  MIT provides annual compliance training for all personnel who participate in oil handling activities.

Some spills may need to be reported to government agencies if in excess of 10 gallons or if they create a sheen on a waterway.  If you observe or are aware of a spill outside a building, please contact facilities or the MIT police.  To report a spill or potential release, contact:

  • Facilities Operations Center at Ext. 617 253 1500 or MIT Police at x100 from a campus phone or 617-253-1212.


Identifying Potential Spill Problem Areas

Most oil spills occur during transfer operations (such as loading/unloading or transport); or from equipment failures, such as leaks from valves or flanges; or from failure of storage devices, such as tanks or containers.

While it is impossible to predict exactly what will cause a leak or a spill, based on past experience, the most likely areas have been identified and listed in the SPCC Plan.


Spill Prevention

Our primary goal is to prevent spills. However, should a spill event occur, the best way to stop it from reaching the river is to contain the oil within the immediate area. To cover this, the following policies have been developed to minimize the possibility of spills, and to minimize the impact of spills that do occur.


Container Storage Areas

All containers of oil must be properly labeled and stored upright.

When oil-containing containers are stored in areas where a spill can reach the river (for instance, outside storage areas, loading docks, etc.), these containers must be either stored on secondary containment pallets or some other type of secondary container.

If there are open floor drains in the areas where oil is stored, the drains must be covered, capped or plugged, except when the drain is being used to remove water from the floor.

Sorbent materials must be placed at or near all oil storage areas. Similar materials are also available at or near electrical rooms in which oil-filled electrical equipment is located.


Tank Areas

All new tanks are equipped with secondary containment.

In rooms with existing storage tanks outside of secondary containment systems, open floor drains must be covered, capped or plugged, except when the drain is used to drain water from the floor.


Spill Reporting

In the event of an oil spill the following steps should be taken:

  • If the spill is small and manageable, and if a spill kit is immediately available, contain the spill using the spill kit.
  • Contact the Facilities Operations Center at Ext. 3-1500 and/or the MIT Police at extension 100 from a campus phone to initiate spill reporting and cleanup efforts.


Storm Water


In an average year, over 45 inches of water falls onto the MIT campus as rain, sleet or snow.  This water washes across our buildings, parking lots, sidewalks and streets on its journey into to the ground or the Charles River. 

A few buildings on campus harvest some of this water for non-potable uses such as toilet flushing or cooling tower make up.  This helps to reduce the demand for cleaned tap water and helps with flow control to avoid flooding.


The Institute has many programs in place to reduce contamination of stormwater. These address the many construction activities on campus along and include regular pick up of trash on the grounds and inspections of potential contamination sources such as oil storage and trash dumpsters.

One of the greatest threats is from an accidental spill or release of oil or other hazardous material, into a storm drain.  There are rigorous programs in pale for inspecting these locations and reporting and responding to any spills or releases.  

Please contact the EHS office if you see a spill which could reach a storm drain or have any other questions regarding Storm water.