Helicopter Monitoring Program

Taking Flight: “GRO” Fellow Bridges Cultural Heritage and Science

By Ciarra Greene


I grew up on the Nez Perce Reservation in Northern Idaho, surrounded by rolling wheat fields and wooded mountains, where I learned the traditional stories of my Tribe.  My favorite quote was one my father would recite while we were hunting, fishing, and gathering: “The earth is part of my body… I belong to the land out of which I came.”  From the Nez Perce leader Toohoolhoolzote, the quote inspired me to observe and investigate my environment and initiated my desire to bridge my culture with Western science.

As a college undergraduate in 2010 at Northern Arizona University, I received a two-year Greater Research Opportunity (GRO) EPA Fellowship that provided support for my ongoing undergraduate research and for a summer internship.

Under the guidance of Jani Ingram Ph.D, my undergraduate research focused on environmental uranium contamination.   Uranium mining occurred on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, leaving a toxic landscape for the people. The harvested uranium was transported for processing at the Hanford Nuclear Waste Site in Richland, Washington, resulting in further contamination of natural and cultural resources of other Tribes, including the Nez Perce. The relationship of uranium and Native peoples captivated my interest and solidified my dedication to the project.

Our lab focused on water, soil, plants, livestock (sheep) and my specific project: cleaning up the contamination. Through my research, I was able to educate both Native and non-Native people about the challenges Tribal Nations are facing today because of decisions made decades ago.

My summer internship took me all the way across the country, where my assignment—“The Helicopter Monitoring Program”—involved surveying and sampling New Jersey and New York waterways and beaches from the air. 

I was also invited to attend the Consultation with Indian Nations Training Course in New York City, where I gave a presentation about the challenges of working with tribes in the Southwest and Northwest.  I was honored to share my experiences about the environmental problems facing Tribes throughout our nation. 

Later that summer, I made another presentation at the Society for American Indian Government Employees (SAIGE) about my research, various EPA fellowship and scholarship opportunities, and Native American women in the workforce, focusing on my role in EPA.

I took the opportunity to share my culture, experiences, and concerns with professionals across the nation.  My goal was to give back more than I had received from this extraordinary experience.

About the Author: Ciarra Greene, a former GRO Fellow, is part of the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho. She is currently working at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, AZ, educating youth about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  She will be attending the University of Idaho next fall to pursue a Master’s Degree in Natural Resources through their McCall Outdoor Science School.

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 “Coastal Crusader” Keeps Beach Season Cleaner

By Helen Grebe

As a college student without a car studying general biology in the late 1980’s, I needed a job in my major.  As luck would have it, the EPA Edison, NJ office was within walking distance to my home and was offering a summer internship for the Helicopter Monitoring Program.  Working with the Edison field and laboratory staff inspired me to dedicate my career to the environmental cause.

The “Coastal Crusader” surveys the waters of the New York/New Jersey Harbor, looking for “slicks” of floating debris that could wash up on area beaches.

EPA’s helicopter, fondly called the “Coastal Crusader,” has been flying over the New York/New Jersey Harbor Complex since 1989 and along the Long Island and New Jersey coastlines for many years before that. Currently, the program helps support NY and NJ shellfish programs and focuses on searching for floatable debris in the waterways.

Floatable debris can originate from street litter, combined sewer overflow (CSO) discharges, storm water discharges, decaying shoreline structures, pleasure boaters, and littering beach goers.  Floatable debris can consist of a wide assortment of plastic, wood, paper, glass and rubber.  Such things as plastic bags, plastic drinking bottles, mylar balloons, styrofoam cups, tires, straws and decaying piers are typically observed.  This debris suspended in the water column may eventually be deposited on shorelines and local beaches causing harm to the marine environment and closures to local beaches.

The EPA helicopter crew, mostly made up of summer interns, coordinates cleanup of floatable debris six days a week by reporting debris to the Army Corps of Engineer’s skimmer vessels.  These vessels are specially modified to pick up debris before it escapes the harbor.

Other programs such as the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Clean Shores program also help remove debris from the area.  In fact, to date, approximately 408 million pounds of debris have been removed from the New York Bight area.

As extensive as these programs are, we can all do our part to protect local beaches and the marine environment by leaving no trash behind. How do you help keep your local beach clean?

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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