By Sharon Jaffess
As a child in 1970, I played along the shores of Jamaica Bay in Far Rockaway, New York and collected water samples to look at under my microscope. I wrote a letter to EPA and was excited to receive a response. Just like Derek Jeter knew he wanted to be a New York Yankee as a child, I knew I wanted to be an EPA scientist.
I started with the agency as a summer intern in NYC in 1985. Thinking about EPA@40, I’m proud of all the work we’ve done to clean up sites, but what mostly comes to mind are my relationships with people, the citizens, co-workers and collaborators I’ve met over the years.
I remember Mrs. L who lived next door to the Tabernacle Drum Dump Superfund site. I’d sample her tap water for safety testing, then help feed her pigs and buy her green eggs, which had a light green shell from a South American breed of hen. There was Christina P. from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), who helped EPA clean up many sites but passed away before we could acknowledge her important contributions. Lisa B. was one of my “Sisters of Sediment.” Along with Rick W., Eric S. and Jon B. at NJDEP, we were instrumental in forming the interagency partnership to clean up the Passaic River. I remember the Newark Junior High School students we took out on the Passaic River, who were so excited to go out on the boat and learn; and the people in Battery Park City, St. Tamminy Parish, Louisiana, and Marshall, Michigan, who were all so appreciative of our efforts to clean up their towns. And I recall the Coast Guard Ensigns who I woke up at 2:00 a.m. to help me retrieve a canine body out of the Hudson River at Ground Zero. Seeing how upset I was, they took me for a speed ride on their boat, supposedly to “ungunk” the engine. It was the first time I smiled in a month.
When I think of EPA@40, it is more than just about the clean up work — it is about the citizens and the close friends I’ve made. I’m also startled to realize how I’m still thinking about contaminated water. Forty years ago, I couldn’t do much about it. But, over the past twenty-five years, I have.
About the author: One of Sharon’s dreams came true in 1985 when EPA’s New York office hired this University of Rochester trained geologist to clean up hazardous waste in NY and NJ. Sharon re-focused her attention to the equally important work for the citizens in the Great Lakes Region, graduated from the Partnership for Public Service’s Excellence in Government Leadership Program, and was recently charged to manage and lead the Superfund Division’s Site Assessment Program.
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