EPA diving

It’s Not Exactly Rocket Science but…

By Matthew Colip

EPA Scientific Diver trainee Matt Colip returns to the surface following SuperLite 17K Diving Helmet and drysuit training.

Being an EPA Scientific Diver is a lot like being an astronaut; you’re trained with a specific skill-set to “float” through an often unpredictable environment with the purpose of gathering data to advance science and help people.  For me, becoming an EPA Scientific Diver has expanded my scientific capabilities to work in an environment that occupies 70% of the planet and that we all depend on: water.

EPA’s Scientific Diving Program can be traced back over 40 years to a group of divers formed to support the need for diving expertise in contaminated waters for the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration, the predecessor to EPA.

Today, EPA has scientific diving units at strategic locations across the country conducting scientific work for a myriad of federal, state, and local programs.  EPA scientific divers work in both marine and freshwater environments. 

For example, EPA recently conducted a freshwater mussel survey in the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  The divers conducted 12 dives and reported information on the habitat conditions at the river bottom to the surface via wireless communication.  In addition, live and dead mussel shells were collected for species identification.  Ultimately, the information they collected will add to the data Pennsylvania is gathering on the ecological health of the Susquehanna River.

Since joining EPA as a biologist, I’ve wanted to use my recreational SCUBA diver experience to become a member of the Agency’s Scientific Diving Program.  Scientific diver trainees must successfully complete EPA’s Scientific Diver Training Program, which emphasizes safety and includes extensive safety training and drills.

Studying the physics of water pressure and its effects on human physiology, the proper use and handling of oxygen-enriched air, and the unique challenges of diving in polluted waters help us learn important concepts that prevent accidents.

In addition to general safe diving concepts, EPA scientific diver trainees also learn skills to gather data and survey underwater environments. We learn how to use underwater cameras, electronic communications equipment,  conduct a basic benthic survey, sampling techniques for water and sediment, as well as underwater navigation and sampling site survey methods for zero-visibility diving. 

Simply stated, EPA’s Scientific Diver Training Program transforms recreational divers who are scientists, engineers, law enforcement personnel, and/or academics, into EPA-certified scientific divers who use underwater environments as their sampling laboratory.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at: facebook.com/EPADivers.

About the Author: Matthew Colip works as a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Enforcement Officer in EPA Mid-Atlantic Region’s Water Protection Division, NPDES Enforcement Branch.

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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Underwater with EPA Divers

by Sean Sheldrake, EPA Region 10 Dive Team and Alan Humphrey, EPA Environmental Response Team (ERT)

In Rodney Dangerfield’s 1986 classic “Back to School” the older college student is called upon to win a high diving competition with his infamous and highly choreographed “Triple Lindy” maneuver. This high dive involves twists, turns, somersaults, and all manner of intricate movements. While EPA does not have a high diving team, we do have a scientific diving program to undertake its mission underwater to protect human health and the environment – and choreography is absolutely part of their training.

EPA scientific divers are often called upon to perform all manner of scientific dive missions on behalf of EPA. Divers in the Gulf Coast areas may conduct invasive species or coral reef health surveys, while divers in Oregon may be studying eelgrass health in estuaries. Divers in the northeast survey for invasives in inland waters and survey artificial reefs to determine their effectiveness. EPA’s Region 10 (Pacific Northwest area) and Environmental Response Team divers primarily conduct work in contaminated water in support of various cleanup projects for EPA and the Clean Water Act.

Northwest divers and the Environmental Response Team often partner on polluted water scientific diving projects all over Region 10’s vast area of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Those collaborations very recently included those on the Willamette River in Oregon. Two divers from Region 10, and one Environmental Response Team diver partnered recently to conduct solid phase microextraction device (SPMD) work with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Like past work where divers installed miniature wells into the river bottom to measure the creep of toxic polyaromatic hydrocarbons, this mission was to place sampling devices into the river bed that mimic the way bottom dwelling creatures, such as crayfish absorb chemicals. The miniature glass fibers within the sampling device will actually absorb chemicals just as the body of the crayfish would — and can be more easily analyzed at the lab. The data will determine whether a multi-million dollar cleanup is working, if it is done very carefully.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at www.facebook.com/EPADivers

About the authors: Sean Sheldrake and Alan Humphrey both serve on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements. In addition, they both work to share contaminated water diving expertise with first responders and others.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.