Science Wednesday

Science Wednesday: A Sustainable Super Bowl XLVI

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Marguerite Huber

On Sunday, February 5th 2012, thousands of people descended upon Indianapolis, Indiana to watch Super Bowl XLVI. While millions watched the game, they were probably unaware of the sustainability actions that were put forth at Lucas Oil Stadium.

I spoke with NFL Environmental Program Director, Jack Groh, about what his job entails. He describes his job as incorporating environmental principles into sporting events, all the while making good business decisions. In the 18 years Groh has been with the NFL, they have kept expanding their sustainability actions, moving from just solid waste recycling to green energy seven years ago.

This year the NFL will be offsetting the energy for the stadium with Renewable Energy Credits for an entire month! “We are renting the stadium for a month, so we believe we are responsible for our tenancy,” states Groh. In addition to the stadium, the program will be offsetting the city’s convention center and four major hotels. That’s an estimated total offset of 15,000 megawatt hours.

“Every year there is something new and exciting. We want to push the envelope and look for new impacts and strategies,” Groh proclaims. For example, diverting waste from landfills by promoting recycling and reuse, collecting extra prepared food for donations for soup kitchens, donating building and decorative materials to local organizations, and reducing the impact of greenhouse gases from Super Bowl activities. My favorite is the 2,012 Trees program, which will help plant 2,012 trees in Indianapolis to help offset environmental impacts.

What I found most interesting from talking with Mr. Groh was that he does not spend a lot of time with publicity, which is why many of you may have never heard of this program. “People are amazed that we have been doing this for two decades. We don’t do it to create an image or green presence in the media, but do it because it’s the right thing and a really smart way to run things. Our goal is make the Super Bowl as green as we possibly can make it.” Groh admitted.

Sustainability and sports is a growing trend, even if it is not seen on the surface of our favorite sporting events. I am excited to see how professional leagues will mold the core of their existence into a new form of competition that is not just for teams, but for the professional leagues themselves. With sustainability, everybody wins!

About the author: EPA intern Marguerite Huber is working on Masters in Public Affairs from Indiana University, concentrating in sustainable development.

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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Science Wednesday:Listening to the Doctor

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Tarlie Townsend

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland and I have a lot in common. For instance: after getting her medical degree she completed a master’s in public health at Harvard. Just a few days ago, I was looking over the website for that exact degree program!

Hm, I guess maybe we don’t have so much in common after all. Unlike Dr. Brundtland, whose recent talk to EPA staff allowed me to see her up close (and during my first week working in the office!), I wasn’t the youngest and first female Prime Minister of Norway. I also haven’t served as director general for the World Health Organization or as Special Envoy for Climate Change for the UN Secretary General.

But we do share some fundamental interests. Maybe what I should say, then, is that I have a lot to learn from people like her.
Dr. Brundtland’s commitment to sustainable development offers one major example. Although she began her career in medicine, perhaps the most straightforward way to improve human health, her greatest impacts stem from her recognition that a healthy person cannot exist independently of a healthy environment. Rather, we need air we can breathe, water we can drink, food that’s nutritious and non-toxic—and enough of those things. It’s with this realization that she worked to incorporate issues of environmental health and sustainability into policy.

This is inspiring to me for several reasons. As an undergrad considering possible career paths, I’ve questioned whether to pursue public health, environmental science, or science policy. Indeed, a graduate degree requires specialization in some area, but I am seeing now how intrinsically related these fields are—how valuable it is, for instance, for a specialist in environmental science to grasp the relevance of their work to public health and policy, and to collaborate with members of those fields on crucial issues.

Dr. Brundtland addresses EPA staff

Dr. Brundtland addresses EPA staff

Other groups, too, should be involved—businesspeople, for instance. Dr. Brundtland highlighted the value of incorporating sustainability into a company’s business practices: new technologies may simultaneously reduce the environmental impact and improve industrial efficiency, increasing the bottom line in the long run. And since sustainable development is just that sustainable—businesses that apply it may be/are themselves more likely to endure.

In that case, why not pursue business and policy strategies that are both great for business and great for human health?

About the author: Tarlie Townsend – When she’s not pretending to be Dr. Brundtland’s protégé, Tarlie can be found interning with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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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Science Wednesday: What Does National Security Have To Do With The Environment?

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Alan Hecht and Joseph Fiksel

Some people might be surprised to hear that there’s a National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) conference this week here in Washington, DC focused on national security and the environment.

There is, and it brings together a distinguished group of international political leaders, scientists, and academic, including our own EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and the famous Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime Minister of Norway who led the preparation of the 1987 UN Report, Our Common Future, famous for its classic definition of sustainable development.

As sustainability scientists ourselves, we’re happy to see the link between national security and environmental sustainability gaining more attention.
Today national security means more than defending against military attacks. It is about dealing with the pressures of population growth, energy and material demand, and competition for access to land, water, minerals, and other vital natural resources. These global pressures are driving not only climate change but also degradation of water, soil, forests, and wetlands, which in turn may compromise energy, food, and resource security.

EPA was first prompted to engage in environmental security in 1995 by then Administrator William C. Reilly, who asked the Agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) to look beyond the horizon and anticipate environmental problems that may emerge in the 21st century. In response, the SAB reported: “global environmental quality is a matter of strategic national interest that must be recognized publicly and formally.”

Today, EPA is again investigating how sustainable development can alleviate the fundamental threats of resource depletion and economic instability. In November 2010, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to make recommendations about sustainability and the EPA.

The resulting NAS report and recommendations were delivered to EPA in September 2011 and is now the subject of extensive internal and external discussions.

As EPA scientists, it’s nice to see our collective work help advance the understanding that national security entails keeping our critical resources—including water, soil, energy, and minerals—that support global economic and social well-being, safe and secure. Our work is protecting human health and the environment, and is also helping to keep our country safe.

About the Authors:
Dr. Alan Hecht is a leader in sustainability research and a Senior Advisor to the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development.
Dr. Joseph Fiksel is a sustainability expert from The Ohio State University who is currently on a special appointment at EPA helping to incorporate systems thinking into the Agency’s research programs.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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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Science Wednesday: Nitrogen, Think About It

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Sarah Blau

Let’s just take a moment to think about nitrogen. Symbol: N. Atomic number: 7. Atomic mass: 14u. But unless you’re a chemist this doesn’t mean too much…

So let’s think about other aspects of nitrogen. Nitrogen is in the air we breathe, it is in the food we eat, it is a part of the necessary nutrients needed for life. Plants need nitrogen. Animals need nitrogen. We need nitrogen.

But, as is often the case, too much of a good thing is NOT a good thing. Nitrogen exists naturally in the environment, but human energy and food production have led to increased nitrogen levels in the air, land, and water. This excess of nitrogen in our natural resources contributes to many adverse impacts from decreased visibility in the air, to acid rain falling on land, to harmful algal blooms in water bodies, and more.

Nervous yet?

Luckily, EPA researchers take more than a moment of the day to think about nitrogen. They think about sources of nitrogen, the movement of nitrogen in the environment, the chemical changes of nitrogen, and the environmental and public health effects of nitrogen.

EPA scientists and partners in Iowa are testing newly created wetlands as treatment systems for lowering sediment and nitrogen pollution in surface waters draining into the Mississippi River.

In Narragansett, Rhode Island, EPA scientists are investigating how nitrogen from different sources interacts with other pollutants and affects lakes and reservoirs. Results will be used to develop computational tools for more informed nutrient management decisions.

Yet another EPA study focuses on the northern Gulf of Mexico, a.k.a. “The Dead Zone” where excess levels of nitrogen have had severe effects on the coastal ecosystem. Scientists are developing cutting-edge, 3D water flow and water quality models of the northern Gulf in order to inform decision-making about how potential nutrient management and climate change scenarios will affect the Gulf’s Dead Zone and the rivers and streams that feed into it.

EPA’s nitrogen research is ongoing at these and many other locations across the country to answer the overarching question: “How do we protect and sustain ecosystems and protect public health while also providing the material, food, and energy required by society?”

It’s a good question and a hard one to answer. So let’s be glad that EPA scientists know their chemistry.

About the author:  Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working with EPA’s Science Communication Team.

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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Una palabra con cinco letras para un gas radioactivo inerte

El otro día trabajaba en un crucigrama del periódico bastante difícil cuando me tropecé con esta clave – palabra con cinco letras para un gas radioactivo inerte. Bien, me dije a mí mismo, creo que sé ésta. Tiene que ser radón. Me hubiera gustado que el resto del crucigrama fuera igual de fácil!

Enero es el Mes Nacional de Acción de Radón y estoy escribiendo este blog para crear conciencia acerca de los peligros del radón. Afortunadamente, aquí puedo ofrecer más información que la clave de un crucigrama.

El radón es un gas que se produce en la naturaleza del uranio radioactivo en el suelo y en las rocas que se encuentra alrededor del mundo entero. Ya que los materiales radioactivos se descomponen y cambian con el tiempo, usted podría pensar que el uranio se desintegra. Sí, de hecho, se desintegra, primero y se convierte en radio, y después de un tiempo, el radio se desintegra en radón. Ya que el radón es un gas, este se mueve fácilmente a través del suelo y fluye desde el suelo hacia la atmosfera y los edificios. ¿Ahora comprende por qué me preocupan los niveles de radón en los hogares?

De hecho, aunque parece una idea descabellada, el radón puede adentrarse fácilmente en su hogar. Tome como ejemplo donde yo vivo, en nuestro frío clima del medio oeste, necesitamos calentar nuestros hogares. Al calentar el aire, el aire tibio sube y crea una mayor presión arriba y una baja presión abajo, que básicamente trabaja como una aspiradora que succiona el suelo debajo de la casa. Es por esta razón que vemos niveles elevados de radón en los sótanos y en los pisos bajos de algunos edificios.

Peor aún es el hecho de que aunque usted no puede ver ni oler el radón, éste si le hace daño. ¿Pensaba que el proceso de desintegración eliminaba el radón? Pues, claro que no lo elimina. El radón es radioactivo, así que también se descompone, y cuando lo hace libera partículas alfa. En sus pulmones, las partículas alfa causan daño al golpear los tejidos. El respirar muchas partículas alfa puede causar serios problemas de salud, incluyendo cáncer. El radón es la segunda causa principal de cáncer pulmonar, y la primera causa de cáncer pulmonar entre las personas que no fuman.

Por su salud y por la salud de su familia, haga la prueba de radón en su hogar. Hacer la prueba es la única manera de saber si los niveles de radón en su hogar están elevados. Si encuentra niveles de radón altos – 4 picocuríes o más – haga los arreglos en su hogar- lo cual también es fácil de hacer. Simplemente mire la página web de radón de la EPA. Me gustaría que el resto del crucigrama hubiera sido tan fácil como es hacer la prueba de radón.

Jack Barnette es un científico ambiental que trabaja para la División de Aire y Radiación en la oficina regional de la EPA en Chicago. El señor Barnette ha trabajado con la EPA desde el 1984, Antes de unirse a la EPA, trabajó para la Agencia Medioambiental del Sstado de Illinois. El señor Barnette trabaja en un número de asuntos del medio ambiente y salud publica incluyendo la calidad del aire interior, protección de radiación, educación en asma y monitoreo del aire.

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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Science Wednesday:Five Letter Word for an Inert, Radioactive Gas

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Jack Barnette

The other day, I was trying a rather difficult crossword puzzle when I stumbled across this clue – a five letter word for an inert, radioactive gas. Well, it’s got to be R-A-D-O-N. I know that one because radon and indoor air quality issues are a big part of my job at EPA. I wish the rest of the puzzle was that easy!

January is National Radon Action Month, so I’m blogging to increase awareness of radon’s dangers – and fortunately, here I can provide a lot more information than a crossword clue.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas that comes from radioactive uranium in soil and rocks. Since radioactive materials break down and change over time, you might guess that uranium disintegrates. It does, into radium, and after more time, radium disintegrates into radon. Since radon is a gas, it moves around easily through soil and flows from the ground into the atmosphere or into homes, schools, and other buildings. Are you starting to get why I’m concerned with the radon levels in homes?

It’s crazy but true that our own homes can actually make it easier for radon to enter. Take where I live for example; in our cold Midwest climate we need to heat our homes. As we heat the air, the warmer air rises and creates higher pressure upstairs and lower pressure downstairs, or what I can best describe as a low-powered, but steady and insidious vacuum sucking on the soil underneath the house. Yeah, my house sucks! This is a major reason why we see elevated levels of radon in some buildings.

What’s even more insidious is that while you can’t see or smell radon it can still harm you.. Radon releases alpha particles as it continues to break down. In your lungs, alpha particles slam into tissue and cause damage. Breathing in too many alpha particles can cause serious health consequences, including cancer. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, and the first cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers.

To protect the health of yourself and your family from radon, remember these tips: Test, Fix and Save a Life. The only way to know if you have elevated levels of radon in your home/school is to test. If you find high levels (4 picoCuries/L or more), fix your home – it’s easy, and might just save a life; check out EPA’s radon website. I wish the rest of the puzzle was as easy as testing for radon!

About the author: Jack Barnette is an environmental scientist with the Air and Radiation Division in EPA’s regional office in Chicago. Mr. Barnette has been with the U.S.EPA since 1984. Before joining EPA Barnette worked for the Illinois state environmental agency. Mr. Barnette works on a number of environmental and public health issues including indoor air quality, radiation protection, asthma education, and air monitoring.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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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Science Wednesday: Don’t wait for Wednesday—Get Science Matters!

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Aaron Ferster

While “TGISW” (thank goodness it’s Science Wednesday) may never catch on like that more famous exclamation about everybody’s favorite workday, I’ve come to really enjoy my weekly task of getting EPA’s weekly science post ready for Greenversations. Even though we still have another one left before the calendar flips over to 2012, we’ve already shared more “Science Wednesdays” this year than there are actual Wednesdays.

Posts were “tagged” for a diversity of EPA science activities, including sustainability (six posts this year), green chemistry (four posts), clean air research (four posts), women in science (part of the Agency’s month-long activities Celebrating Women in Science during March, 2011), risk assessment (two posts), and a host of other subjects too numerous to fit into a single blog post. We even managed to work in something about bed bugs and a hedgehog!

EPA scientists eager to share insights on their work advancing environmental models launched a series called “Modeling Matters.”

A special thanks to all our readers and commenters, who joined the science “Greenversations” to the tune of some 191 comments.

By now you’ve noticed that we have a lot of science to share, way more that can fit into weekly “Science Wednesday” posts. That’s why I’d like to invite everyone again to sign up for our newsletter, Science Matters.

The December issue includes stories on: EPA efforts to measure sustainability, an environmental model for tracking mercury levels in fish and loons in lakes across New England, news about the latest release of the Community Multiscale Air Quality Model, a link to a podcast interview about EPA’s hydraulic fracturing study—and more. To have the newsletter delivered right to your inbox, click on the link below and add your e-mail address to the box on the web site: Subscribe to Science Matters.

Until next time—TGISW!

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the lead science writer in EPA’s Office of Research and Development and the editor or Science Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.


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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Science Wednesday: Tox21’s 10,000 Compound List

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Aaron Ferster

I’m a big fan of those “Top Ten” lists that come out at the end of every year. I like to track how many of my favorite movie critic’s Top Ten List of Films I’ve caught during the year (so far, I’ve seen most of them—and I’ve still got a couple of weeks to go before New Year’s Eve). The synopses included in the lists of Top Ten Best Novels of the year let me feel like I’m in the know about the latest literature, even though I’ve clearly spent more time at the cinema than at the bookstore.

But this year the most impressive “list” I’ve come across came out last week, when EPA and its partners from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced the compounds to be tested as part of the collaborative Tox21 research program over the next couple of years

Only the list is slightly more robust than ten—it’s a 10,000 compound library.

The library contains chemicals covering a wide variety of classifications, including chemicals found in industrial processes, consumer products, and food additives, as well as human and veterinary drugs. A large number of reference compounds are also included to give researchers access to different toxicological or disease endpoints, duplicate compounds for evaluating test methods, and a small set of chemical mixtures for a pilot study.

“The Tox21 partnership integrates revolutionary advances in molecular biology, chemistry, and computer science to quickly and cost-effectively screen the thousands of chemicals in use today,” said Paul Anastas, Ph.D., the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

The compounds will be tested with a high-speed, robotic testing system that was unveiled early this year—the subject of a previous blog post here on Science Wednesday.  That means the tests will continue nearly nonstop, 24-7 until all the compounds have been analyzed.

Results of the tests will provide information useful for evaluating if any of the 10,000 chemicals have the potential to disrupt processes in the human body to an extent that would lead to adverse health effects. I’ll be sure to blog about those results once they start rolling in. But in the meantime, I’ll be at the movies.

About the author: Aaron Ferster is the senior science writer for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and the editor of Science Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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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Science Wednesday:The Ghost of Science Future

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Aaron Ferster

This past weekend, my extended family came to town to see my daughter play the role of Belinda Cratchit in her high school production of A Christmas Carol: Scrooge and Marley. It was a nice break from the yearend editing crush of newsletter articles, science action plans, and an annual report that have piled up on my desk over the past couple of weeks.

Instead of stressing about looming deadlines and missing blog posts (you know who are!), I spent a wonderful evening in the company of friends and family watching a timeless story of reflection and redemption, complete with stage effects and a trio of ghosts sporting amazing costumes.

I found my thoughts drifting back to the performance well into Monday morning’s staff meeting. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that the main point of the story—that it’s a good idea for us to take stock of where we’ve been, what we’re doing, and where we want to go—can be good motivation.
That afternoon, reviewing last year’s annual report (Science and Research at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: EPA progress report 2010) became my own personal “Ghost of Science Communication Past,” reminding me of things I want to improve for the production of our 2011 report in order to do justice to the many achievements EPA scientists and engineers have accomplished over the past year.

The weekly quest to provide blog posts here on Science Wednesday offers an ideal “Ghost of Science Communication Present,” a constant reminder to keep the flow of ongoing EPA science and research stories moving. Thanks to all of you who check in every week to see what’s going on.

And as followers of this blog now know, EPA’s collective “Ghost of Science Future” is sustainability. Sustainability—and the innovative research that will be required to achieve it—has been identified as EPA’s “The True North,” guiding its science and research efforts into the future.

Over the next year, I’ll be devoting at least one “Science Wednesday” a month to EPA sustainability science. Please let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or specific topics you’d like to see covered. Look for our first sustainability blog right after the holidays on January 4, 2012. (We do have Christmas off—Bah humbug!)

About the author: Aaron Ferster is the editor of Science Wednesday and a frequent contributor.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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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Science Wednesday: Net Zero

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Leslie Gillespie-Marthaler

As someone who has spent time on military installations and has a great respect for the Army community, I’m thrilled to be helping the Army work toward “Net Zero” and sustainability.

I’ve lived on installations myself, and know firsthand that they are very much like small cities. With thousands of soldiers, civilians and families on base, they face many of the same challenges that cities around the country are facing, including increased energy costs, limited water resources and aging infrastructure. For example, last year Army installations used 41.8 billion gallons of potable water at a cost of $67.4 million.

To help combat these challenges, EPA and the Department of the Army have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to advance the Army’s Net Zero Initiative.

The goal of the Initiative is to ensure that Army installations only consume as much energy and water as they produce and minimize waste sent to landfills. EPA scientists and engineers will provide their skills and expertise to bring cutting-edge research assistance to the effort.

I was happy to be on hand this week when Paul Anastas, PhD, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development and Science Advisor at EPA, signed the MOU with the Honorable Katherine Hammack, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and the Environment.

“The Net Zero partnership was inspired by the Army’s ability to demonstrate true leadership in sustainability,” said Anastas. “The Army Installations are a test bed for new technologies that can solve more than one problem and can be replicated or scaled for communities throughout the nation.”

“We look forward to working with Army experts to develop tools and technologies to address some of our more pressing economic and environmental challenges,” he added.

“Through a whole-of-government approach to sustainability, the Army’s Net Zero Initiative increases the Army’s ability to be successful today and into the future. Our collaboration with EPA’s Office of Research and Development brings leading-edge research assistance together to advance both our institutions’ goals for increased resource efficiency and balanced resource use,” said Hammack.

Anastas emphasized how the Army’s and EPA’s goals are intricately interconnected: “You are protecting the nation. We are helping make the nation worth protecting,” he said.

I feel it’s both a privilege and an honor to help incredible Army communities and their neighbors achieve “Net Zero.”

About the author: A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Leslie Gillespie-Marthaler, is currently a senior advisor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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.