Emergency Response

Hometown Emergency as Youth Spurs EPA Career in Heartland Ag Outreach

By Kris Lancaster

“Go get your grandmother!” my uncle shouted as a deadly white cloud of anhydrous ammonia drifted menacingly above my hometown of Memphis, Mo., in 1970, where I worked as a teenager at my family’s agribusiness.

Lancaster family agribusiness

Lancaster family agribusiness

I vividly remember my uncle’s face 45 years later, and the weight on my shoulders to evacuate Grandmother Lancaster. I raced to her house and convinced her to go with me to my uncle’s home. After she was safe, I ran to other homes and knocked on the doors to alert my neighbors of the danger. After a few hours, hundreds of nearby residents were safely evacuated.

The emergency was triggered when a fitting on an anhydrous ammonia tanker disconnected from the storage tank, resulting in the release of nearly 20 tons of the airborne chemical. The truck driver and a neighbor helping at the scene were injured.

Many people don’t associate risk with agriculture, but some of the chemicals used can be dangerous. The 1970 incident had a huge impression on me. I realized that exposure to anhydrous ammonia can happen suddenly and unexpectedly, and can cause injuries or even death. This chemical is widely used as a source of nitrogen fertilizer for corn, milo and wheat.

That accidental release happened before EPA was created. Since then, most of the agribusinesses in Region 7 have worked well with EPA and handled these volatile chemicals very responsibly.

Anhydrous ammonia tanks

Anhydrous ammonia tanks

EPA regulates anhydrous ammonia through the Clean Air Act’s Risk Management Plan (RMP) Rule. Our goal is to prevent releases that could harm the public and environment. Agricultural retail facilities that handle, process, or store more than 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia were first required to be in compliance with the RMP Rule in 1999.

At the Lancaster agribusiness, my job in the 1960s and 1970s included loading and unloading fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate. In Scotland County, Mo., this fertilizer was used by farmers primarily as a top dressing for wheat and applied on pastureland.

On April 17, 2013, a fire at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility in West, Texas, resulted in the detonation of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, killing 15 people. Since then, EPA and its partner agencies have stepped up outreach efforts with retailers, responders, and agribusiness associations across the country to help prevent future tragedies.

Today, it’s gratifying to know that EPA is continually reaching out to the ag community in the Heartland to protect workers, responders, and the public from dangerous chemical incidents. I’m proud to work with our agribusinesses to help keep our communities safe.

Visit these EPA Region 7 links for more information:
Agriculture page
Chemical Risk Programs page
Preventing Accidental Anhydrous Ammonia Releases video

About the Author: Kris Lancaster specializes in agricultural relations for EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs. After graduating from Central Missouri State University, he worked for the chairman of the Missouri House Ag Committee and later, for the ranking member of the U.S. House Ag Committee. His family owns a row-crop farm in Scotland County, Mo. Kris has three decades of media relations experience.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Making Significant Progress in Land Cleanup, Prevention and Emergency Management

Recently, we’ve had two exciting accomplishments – we’ve released our annual Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response 2014 Accomplishments Report and launched a new Twitter account, @EPAland.

First, the report. With 51 percent of America’s population living within three miles of a Superfund, brownfield, or Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) corrective action site, our cleanup activities are an important part of people’s lives. Our annual interactive accomplishments report helps those affected by our programs understand how we clean up contaminated sites, ensure communities are prepared in the event of an oil spill or chemical accident, and responsibly manage and control hazardous and non-hazardous materials.  In fiscal year 2014, we:

  • Conducted 466 inspections at industrial facilities across the country handling extremely hazardous chemicals.
  • Made 11,161 Superfund, RCRA corrective action, brownfields and leaking underground storage sites ready for anticipated use by communities.
  • Completed or oversaw 304 Superfund removal actions to contain and remove contaminants and eliminate dangers to the public.
  • Increased the number of sites where human exposure to harmful chemicals is under control to 82 percent of Superfund sites and 87 percent of RCRA corrective action sites.
    Leveraged more than $418 million in community investments with brownfields area-wide planning grants.
  • Worked with federal agencies and Navajo Nation to assess 520 miles, 800 homes and 240 drinking water wells potentially contaminated by abandoned uranium mines.
Mathy Stanislaus speaks with a chemical facility representative.

Mathy Stanislaus speaks with a chemical facility representative.

The report also provides an update on the sustainable materials management (SMM) program’s efforts to reduce the amount of materials people and businesses consume and integrate SMM into business practices to conserve natural resources and stay competitive globally. In fiscal year 2014, we worked with our partners to:

  • Divert 375,000 tons of food from landfills.
  • Collect more than 220,000 tons of used electronics.
  • Save $42 million for U.S. taxpayers by reducing the federal government’s waste, water, and electricity usage.

Addressing the complex environmental challenges facing us today is a shared responsibility.  The activities highlighted in the report would not be possible without partnerships with state and tribal co-regulators, local governments, and the regulated community. I want to thank all of our stakeholders and partners for their commitment to our mission.

Finally, we’ve launched the @EPAland Twitter account to help you stay up to date on local site cleanups, learn about renewable energy technologies on contaminated sites, understand how we respond to hazardous material emergencies and more. We encourage you to stay engaged in our programs and your feedback is important to us. Join the conversation today, I’ll see you there.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Technology for Community Resiliency

By Paul Lemieux

This week I was honored to participate in the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Demo Day. From finding an open gas station to finding a safe place to sleep at night following a disaster or finding a vehicle you can rent by the hour, participants shared a variety of amazing technology applications to help make communities more resilient in the aftermath of disaster.

Me giving a presentation on I-WASTE at the White House's Old Executive Office Building.

Paul giving a presentation on I-WASTE at the White House’s Old Executive Office Building.

While there were some great private sector tools from big innovators like Airbnb, Google, Microsoft, SeeClickFix, and TaskRabbit there were just as many amazing tools from government innovators, too.

An example of some of the government tools highlighted during the demo:

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) announced GeoQ, a tool that crowdsources geo-tagged photos of disaster-affected areas to assess damage over large regions. Developed in coordination with NGA, the Presidential Innovation Fellow Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other disaster analysts, GeoQ improves the speed and quality of disaster-related data coordination by using a data crowd-sharing framework. Programmers can use the existing services and add features to customize the GeoQ code for their own community.

The U.S. Geological Service (USGS) highlighted ShakeMap and other post-earthquake information tools that offer rapid situational awareness for disaster response and recovery. Using data from seismic monitoring systems maintained by USGS and its state and university partners, ShakeMap provides a rapid graphical estimate of ground shaking in an affected region on the web within minutes of an event. The maps and underlying data, which can be downloaded in numerous formats for use in GIS and other applications, are also the basis for ShakeCast—which enables emergency managers at a growing number of companies, response organizations, and local governments to automatically receive USGS shaking data and generate their own customized impact alerts for their facilities.

And I showcased EPA’s I-WASTE, a flexible, web-based, planning and decision-making tool to address disaster waste management issues. I-WASTE offers emergency responders, industry representatives, and responsible officials reliable information on waste characterization, treatment, and disposal options, as well as guidance on how to incorporate waste management into planning and response for natural disasters, terrorist attacks and animal disease outbreaks.

It is clear that there are a number of public and private organizations working together with individuals and communities around the country to ensure that together we are prepared and ready to respond to the next disaster we might face.

Watch a video of how I-WASTE can help your community, embedded below, or go to http://www.epa.gov/sciencematters/homeland/clean-up.htm


Paul Lemieux, Ph.D. works on issues related to clean up after chemical/biological/radiological attacks and foreign animal disease outbreaks. Paul has also been working to develop computer-based decision support tools to aid decision makers in responding to wide-area contamination incidents. He is the Associate Division Director of the Decontamination and Consequence Management Division of U.S. EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Advancing Anthrax Response Capabilities

This week, EPA is hosting the 7th annual international conference on decontamination research and development in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

To help spread the word about the conference, which brings top experts from around the world to advance collaboration and share information on cleaning up contamination—especially chemical, biological, and radiological agents—we are posting “EPA Science Matters” newsletter feature stories.

Advancing Anthrax Response Capabilities
EPA researchers developed an open-access protocol for anthrax detection and informing response activities

Scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicted spores from the Sterne strain of Bacillus anthracis bacteria. Image courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicted spores from the Sterne strain of Bacillus anthracis bacteria. Image courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During and following an anthrax attack, emergency responders and clean-up officials will depend on many different laboratories to process large quantities of various kinds of samples to determine the nature and extent of contamination.  And then, after initial clean-up efforts have been completed, multiple “clearance” samples would need to be tested to evaluate whether anthrax-causing Bacillus anthracis spores were adequately reduced.

EPA researchers have combined many of the analytical procedures the Agency’s Environmental Response Laboratory Network (ERLN)  would need to perform into a single, “open-access” protocol, the Protocol for Detection of B. anthracis in Environmental Samples during the Remediation Phase of an Anthrax Event (2012).   “Open-access” means that laboratories across the nation have access to a consistent set of directions and to the key components of the analysis.  The essential additives, developed by Agency researchers, are DNA probes for Bacillus anthracis that laboratories need to conduct rapid analysis.

The ERLN is a nationwide network of federal, state, local and commercial environmental laboratories (including sub-network for water samples, the Water Laboratory Alliance) charged with analyzing chemical, biological and radiological contamination following a terrorist attack.

“With the availability of this open access Protocol, EPA and its partners will be able to analyze a large number of environmental samples to detect Bacillus anthracis quickly and accurately during any incident.  The Ba Protocol would also enable laboratory analysts to compare lab results from one to another,” explains Sanjiv Shah, Ph.D. senior EPA microbiologist.

Reducing the time it takes for labs to provide officials with the data they will need to guide clean-up efforts and advise occupants on when they can start to re-visit or re-occupy formerly contaminated facilities is another expected impact of the Protocol.

“The availability of this new EPA Protocol will improve the nation’s ability to protect our health and environment and ease the hard work of recovery following an anthrax incident,” says EPA’s Acting Associate Administrator for Homeland Security, Juan Reyes.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA Homeland Security Research

This week, EPA is hosting the 7th annual international conference on decontamination research and development in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

To help spread the word about the conference, which brings top experts from around the world to advance collaboration and share information on cleaning up contamination—especially chemical, biological, and radiological agents—we will be posting “EPA Science Matters” newsletter feature stories.

EPA Homeland Security Research

By Gregory Sayles, Ph.D. 

The images that most people associate with homeland security are immediately dramatic: the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, biohazard-suit-clad decontamination teams, and the now iconic scenes that unfolded during the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

EPA homeland security researchers participate in a emergency collaborative response exercise.

EPA homeland security researchers participate in an emergency response exercise.

Since that time, EPA scientists and engineers, working collaboratively with Agency emergency response and field personnel, water utility professionals, and research partners from across the federal government and beyond, have been working vigilantly to focus our collective response on making the nation more secure, better prepared, and increasingly resilient.

Together, this great team is helping advance national security in ways that greatly enhance our capacity to detect, deter, and respond to terrorist incidents and other catastrophes.  And we are doing so in ways that not only advance homeland security, but build a scientific foundation that helps local communities become more resilient in the face of disruption, be it a deliberate act or unwelcome natural occurrence.

EPA plays a critical role in protecting the nation’s drinking water and the related water distribution and treatment infrastructure, and in advancing the capability to respond to, and clean up from, large-scale incidents involving chemical, biological, or radiological contamination agents.

Such responsibilities include developing the tools, methods, and techniques needed to: determine whether an attack has happened, characterize the impacts of environmental disasters, and control contamination. In addition, EPA researchers work to develop ways to assess environmental and health risks related to these incidents and clean up operations, and to effectively communicate those risks with decision makers, affected community residents, and other stakeholders.

Much of that work will be highlighted this week as we host our partners and collaborators from across the globe at the 7th annual international conference on decontamination research and development in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. To mark the conference, we will be highlighting just a small sampling of EPA’s homeland security research here on our blog, It All Starts with Science.

I invite you to check back over the next few days to learn more about how EPA researchers and their partners are exploring ways to decontaminate buildings from the bacteria that causes anthrax, how to better support large-scale clean up and waste disposal operations following a large area contamination incident, and much, much more to support homeland security.

Those projects and others are improving the nation’s response capability and helping replace pictures once dominated by tragedy and destruction into an ongoing story of resiliency and preparedness. Learn more about EPA homeland security research on our web site: http://www.epa.gov/nhsrc/index.html.

About the Author: Gregory Sayles, Ph.D., is the national program director for EPA homeland security research.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA Responds Quickly to Protect Tribal Community

Several links below exit EPA Exit EPA Disclaimer

By Martin McComb

Many people equate emergency response with large natural disasters and accidents that make the news. While these actions are important, most emergency responses involve actions that protect people and ecosystems from far more common incidents.

In May 2012, people on the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana reported strong gasoline odors near a busy intersection and a steady stream of gasoline emanating from the banks of nearby Sundance Creek.

Officials from the Chippewa Cree Tribe notified the National Response Center and my EPA team quickly mobilized to the site. When we arrived, we determined that the discharge started under a leaky service pump at a nearby gas station and then flowed underneath the station and into the creek. A review of sales records from the station indicated that store managers could not account for roughly 70,000 gallons of fuel.

Picture of waste removal.

To stabilize the situation, the Tribe closed the gas station and removed the service pumps and the gasoline that remained in storage.  Because gasoline vapors can be toxic, my team established a network of instruments to monitor air quality at several nearby residences, businesses and a school. We investigated an adjacent wetland to verify that contamination did not extend to the opposite side of Sundance Creek.

With the U.S. Coast Guard providing technical advice and support, my team began excavation work along Sundance Creek where we discovered a 4-foot thick layer of contaminated soil sitting directly atop the water table. We eventually removed over 7000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and transported it to a former landfill a few miles away from the gas station. The Tribe is now regularly tilling this soil to dissipate the contamination.

The collaborative effort between our team, the Chippewa Cree Tribe, and the U.S. Coast Guard led to a rapid response and an effective cleanup that minimized impacts to surface and ground water and prevented exposure to dangerous vapors to people. My team and others like it at EPA, stand ready to protect our communities and our environment.

About the author:  Martin McComb is a 14-year veteran of EPA and currently serves as an On-Scene Coordinator in Emergency Response.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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EPA Stands Ready to Protect the Public from Everyday Emergencies

by Gilberto Irizarry

Most everyone is familiar with the sights and sounds from major environmental and natural disasters.  In recent years, images and stories from disasters like Superstorm Sandy, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the Joplin Tornadoes were reported all over the media. My office at EPA played a significant part in the overall federal government response to help the country recover and rebuild from these incidents. But over the course of any given day, month or year, the incidents that make the national news are only a small part of the work we do.

Each year, more than 20,000 emergencies involving oil spills or the release hazardous substances are reported in the United States. One day, there might be an oil spill from a business that threatens to pollute nearby streams and soil. The next day, a fire at an industrial plant could potentially threaten the air quality for a nearby neighborhood.  Or someone might discover abandoned drums full of chemicals that need to be identified and disposed.  In many cases, state and local authorities need additional support to clean it up, or the people responsible can’t be found.  That’s when we are called in to help.

We are called because we have expertise and technology to effectively lead and manage emergencies and cleanups to protect human health and the environment.  We have about 250 highly-trained, experienced On-Scene Coordinators, who oversee emergency response efforts and are ready to deploy anywhere in the country, often at a moment’s notice.  We have some of the world’s most advanced response equipment that enables us to assess air, water and soil quality to make sure that they don’t pose a threat to the people who live nearby.  Each incident is unique in its challenges, and they often call for innovative approaches, but in each case, we bring all of our knowledge and capabilities to the table in order to get the job done.

For more information on Emergency Management at EPA, please visit: http://www.epa.gov/emergencies/

About the author:  Gilberto “Tito” Irizarry is a 15-year veteran of EPA’s Emergency Response program.  He served as an On-Scene Coordinator in EPA’s New England Region for seven years before coming to Washington DC to lead the Agency’s Program Operations and Coordination Division in the Office of Emergency Management.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Around the Water Cooler: EPA researchers assist utilities during extreme weather events

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Natural disasters or extreme weather events, like Hurricane Sandy that is headed toward the East Coast this weekend, can threaten our drinking water and wastewater infrastructure with flooding, increase peoples’ exposures to bacteria and toxins, and generally, wreak havoc on our communities.

Hurricanes can also have lasting effects on the water quality of lakes and coastal systems. Storm-related power outages are also a concern, something we all know very well here in the Washington, D.C. metro area.

Last summer, EPA, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, State National Guard units, and others provided drinking water to many Vermont water utilities when Tropical Storm Irene put them out of commission for an extended period of time.

During larger-scale disasters like Hurricane Katrina, or the earthquake that devastated Haiti, the recovery period is even longer. These major events require extremely innovative approaches to scaling up mobile water treatment units, developing temporary distribution systems or even relocating people to areas that have better water supplies and shelter.

Hopefully Hurricane Sandy will take it easy on us this weekend and stay farther out to sea than predicted.  But in the event that we do experience flooding and power outages, here are some things you can do to make sure your water supplies are adequate and safe:

  • Keep at least a 3-day supply of bottled drinking water on hand per person–and don’t forget your pets!
  • Limit contact with any flood waters–they could have high levels of raw sewage or other contaminants.

In addition to these very practical suggestions, EPA scientists and engineers in the Homeland Security Research Program have published Planning for an Emergency Water Supply.  This report was a joint effort with the American Water Works Association and encourages utilities and communities to consider alternative ways of providing drinking water whenever disasters strike. It contains information on how local water utilities can develop an emergency drinking water plan.

For more information on hurricane preparedness, please visit: http://www.epa.gov/hurricanes/.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research team and a frequent “Around the Water Cooler” contributor.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA’s Homeland Security Research Center Turns 10 Today!

By Jonathan G. Herrmann, P.E., BCEE

When I watched Claire Danes accept an Emmy Award for her role as Carrie Mathison in the television series “HOMELAND” last Sunday evening, I was again reminded that homeland security is neither out of sight nor out of mind.

In fact, today, EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center turns 10!

I had the great honor of being one of the Center’s founding members when it was formally established on September 28, 2002.  We drew upon the experience and expertise of the scientific, technical, and administrative staff from across EPA’s Office of Research and Development in creating the Center.  Our near-term goal was to put in place a talented team of individuals to support the Agency in responding to the tragedy of 9/11 and the Amerithrax attacks later in 2001.

The events of 9/11 were devastating to the American public and their impact was felt around the World.  Amerithrax killed five people and contaminated at least 17 buildings with weaponized anthrax spores.  These incidents, along with the possibility of other attacks, required the U.S. Government—at all levels—to do what was necessary to respond and recover—and prevent attacks from happening again in the United States.

EPA continues to play a critical role in protecting the country’s water infrastructure and has the responsibility to address the intentional contamination of buildings, water systems and public areas.  These activities are informed and supported by our research results and scientific and technical expertise.

Our work is guided by laws, Presidential Directives, the National Response Framework, and is consistent with the National Security Strategy.  EPA scientists and engineers provide guidance, tools and technical support to decision makers at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure that decontamination is as cost-effective and timely as possible.  Together with our partners in EPA’s Program Offices and Regions, we enhance the nation’s capability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from both man-made and natural disasters.

Events like Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010) and, more recently, the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan (2011) tested our capabilities like never before.  Along with Agency peers and colleagues from across the federal government, EPA scientists and engineers stepped up to these extraordinary challenges with their time, skills, expertise, energy, and dedication.

I am proud of EPA’s homeland security research efforts and the contributions that the Center has made.  Our efforts strengthen our nation’s resiliency and advance EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment.

About the author:  Jonathan Herrmann is Director, National Homeland Security Research Center, EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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EPA’s Mobile Lab Helps Clean Up Vermont Community

By Larry Kaelin with Mike Nalipinski
EPA’s PHILIS mobile labs

EPA’s PHILIS mobile labs

In the spring of 2011, heavy rains flooded the area of Stevens Brook in St. Albans, VT, and residents at the Colony Square Apartments noticed potentially cancer-causing coal tar waste in a sump in their basement. St. Albans city employees also noticed coal tar wastes in several area manholes while residents in the area noted an oily odor.

 Hurricane Irene came through in August of 2011 and only made the situation worse. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (VT DEC) requested assistance from EPA in May of this year to help figure out if coal tar waste had indeed contaminated the Colony Square Apartments and residential properties of Stevens Brook.  

A team of EPA responders, including myself and EPA On-Scene Coordinator Mike Nalipinski, promptly arrived with a new mobile laboratory known as PHILIS. PHILIS, short for Portable High-throughput Integrated Laboratory Identification System, provides EPA and our response partners in need with the latest in mobile sampling technology. 

By using PHILIS, we obtained more than 250 samples of soil, sump water, sediment, gas and indoor air from ten residential properties over a four day period, to determine the extent of coal tar waste contamination. PHILIS identified several contaminants of concern including cancer-causing Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH), which occur naturally in coal, crude oil and gasoline. Because PHILIS was available, we were able to provide same-day certified data, which made it possible to quickly determine how to best proceed with the cleanup.  

St. Albans, VT cleanup site

St. Albans, VT cleanup site

Without PHILIS, we might have had to send the samples to an off-site laboratory, and the process would have taken more time—time that could have been spent on beginning the cleanup and protecting the community.  

It took less than 90 days from the initial sample by PHILIS, to the removal of approximately 2,400 tons of contaminated soil, to restoring the property back to use. 

About the authors:  Larry Kaelin is a chemist with the EPA’s Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Consequence Management Advisory Team.  Mike Nalipinski is an On Scene Coordinator (OSC) in EPA Region 1 with many years of experience cleaning up Superfund sites.   

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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