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 views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

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 views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

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 views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Kicking off Emergency Response Week

Welcome to Emergency Response Week at Greening the Apple! We are thrilled to be able to highlight the work of our On-Scene Coordinators (OSCs) and Community Involvement Coordinators who work on the ground in communities while emergencies are happening. All week we are going to be featuring some of the hard working people from our region who have responded to a variety of emergencies from 9/11 to an oil refinery explosion in Puerto Rico. During the recent flooding from Hurricane Irene, we caught up with Christopher Jimenez and he gave us a few minutes of his precious time to describe his work.

[flv width=”360″ height=”240″]http://www.epa.gov/region02/mediacenter/video/anosccoordinator.flv[/flv]

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Fire in the Sky: Emergency Response

A loud thump woke me up. I looked at my startled husband as he yelled, “Let’s go get the kids.” I stood as our concrete house shook, and grabbed an iron post from the bed to keep my stance. “An earthquake,” I mustered as we exited our room and noticed the hour:12:25 a.m. In the hallway, my eldest daughter hugged me while asking what was going on. Fortunately, our youngest children did not wake up. In our dining room, the window screens were on the floor and the chandelier was swinging from side to side. My brother-in-law phoned to say there was fire in the sky. My immediate thoughts were about an airplane accident. I opened our dining room side door to find the sky changing colors from red to orange to violet. We looked for a radio and soon learned the cause of such chaos: fire at the Caribbean Petroleum (CAPECO) tank farm less than a mile from our home.

image of fire at petroleum plantWhat was a long awaited weekend all year long – we were holding our Halloween party – turned into an emergency response for me. Within ten minutes of the explosion, I called our Response and Remediation Branch Chief who in turn called the National Response Center.

As a public affairs specialist in the San Juan office of EPA, I had dealt with minor emergencies; this, however, was a real environmental threat since various drums containing jet fuel, Bunker C, diesel and other petroleum derivatives were on fire. The CAPECO facility is located on Road #28 in an area that encompasses three towns: Guaynabo, Bayamon and Cataño and is next to Fort Buchanan, a large military base. The San Juan Bay is two miles away and wetlands and minor water bodies are nearby. The reason this emergency hit home is because, aside from living nearby the facility, I drive down this very same road at 5 am to go to the gym at Fort Buchanan. The tanks are visible from the road.

The first few hours were frantic as federal, state and municipal agencies tried to contain the fire and activate all emergency protocols to ensure the citizens in this largely populated area were not affected. An Incident Command Center was established within 18 hours at a sports facility in San Juan, and we were deployed to work. The media and citizens needed accurate information. We worked hard to provide it.

I must say I have learned more from this experience than I have before in my seven years at EPA. While the fire is out, now the real work begins. I will keep you posted.

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Incendio en el cielo: respuesta a una emergencia

Un fuerte estallido me sacó de la cama. Miré a mi sorprendido esposo que gritaba, “vamos a buscar a los nenes”. Me paré mientras nuestra casa de concreto se estremecía y agarré el pilar de hierro de la cama para no tambalear. “Un terremoto”, logré decir mientras salíamos de nuestra habitación y noté la hora: la 12:25 de la madrugada. En el pasillo, mi hija mayor me abrazó mientras preguntaba lo que estaba pasando. Afortunadamente, mis hijos menores no se despertaron. En nuestro comedor, las mallas metálicas que cubrían las ventanas cayeron todas al piso y la lámpara colgante se jamaqueaba de lado a lado. Mi cuñado llamó por teléfono y nos dijo que había un incendio en el cielo. De inmediato pensé que se trataba de un accidente aéreo. Abrí la puerta lateral de la casa y vi cómo cambiaba el cielo de colores de rojo a anaranjado y violeta. Buscamos una radio y nos enteramos enseguida de la causa del caos: un fuego en la instalación de tanques de almacenamiento de petróleo de la compañía Caribbean Petroleum (CAPECO, por sus siglas en inglés) que queda a menos de una milla de nuestro hogar.

image of fire at petroleum plantEl fin de semana que tanto habíamos anhelado durante casi un año—la celebración de nuestra fiesta de Halloween, se convirtió para mí en una respuesta a una emergencia. A los diez minutos de la explosión, llamé al jefe de nuestra oficina de respuesta y remediación de emergencias quien a su vez se comunicó con el Centro Nacional de Respuesta a Emergencias.

Como especialista en asuntos públicos en la oficina de la EPA en San Juan, he tenido que trabajar en emergencias de menor escala. Sin embargo, esta se trataba de una verdadera amenaza ambiental ya que varios tanques contenían combustible para aviones, Bunker C, diésel y otros derivados de petróleo que estaban ardiendo en llamas. La instalación de CAPECO está localizada en la Carretera #28 en un área que abarca tres pueblos: Guaynabo, Bayamón y Cataño y se encuentra frente a una base militar grande, el Fuerte Buchanan. La Bahía de San Juan está a tan sólo dos millas de distancia y varios humedales y cuerpos de agua de menor escala se encuentran alrededor. Por esa razón, la emergencia me tocó muy de cerca, a parte del hecho de que vivo cerca de la instalación, sino también porque viajo por esa misma carretera a las cinco da la mañana cuando voy al gimnasio en el Fuerte Buchanan. Los tanques son visibles de la carretera.

Las primeras horas fueron frenéticas mientras las agencias federales, estatales y municipales trataron de contener el fuego y activaron todos los protocolos de emergencia para asegurar que los ciudadanos en esa región altamente poblada no fueran afectados. Un Centro de Comando de Incidentes fue establecido a las 18 horas del evento en un centro deportivo en San Juan y fuimos desplegados allí para trabajar. Los medios y la ciudadanía necesitan información exacta. Nosotros trabajamos arduamente para brindarla.

Tengo que decir que aprendí más de esta experiencia de lo que había aprendido en mis siete años con la EPA. Aunque apagamos ya el fuego, ahora el trabajo real comienza. Los mantendré informados.

Sobre la autor: Brenda Reyes Tomassini se unió a la EPA en el 2002. Labora como especialista de relaciones públicas en la oficina de EPA en San Juan, Puerto Rico donde también maneja asuntos comunitarios para la División de Protección Ambiental del Caribe.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Science Notebook: Radiation Emergency Response – From the Field

About the author: Gregg Dempsey is an EPA Radiological Emergency Response Team commander and has been with EPA more than 21 years. His job involves being an internal consultant to EPA on radiation issues and being a field response person for radiation emergencies.

image of author pointing to flowchartIf you’ve ever worried about some of the strange new terms that have been in the media since September 11, 2001, like ‘dirty bomb’, ‘radiation dispersal device’ and ‘improvised nuclear device’, you’re not alone. I worry about them too. But my worry is probably a little different than yours; I am part of a group of people who might have to monitor and cleanup the radiation from these types of events.

EPA deals with small radiation problems across the country all the time. They range from transportation accidents to cleanup at abandoned facilities. We work well with our state and local counterparts, and other Federal agencies to get the job done and remove dangerous radiation from our environment.

The smaller problems turn out to be mostly local issues, but they provide valuable lessons for larger accidents and incidents. You learn just how complicated measuring radiation can be, and how complicated it is to determine when you must act and when you might not need to act. Everyone agrees that high levels of radiation exposure are dangerous. It’s the lower levels that spark a huge debate. The debate ranges from questions such as ‘is my health at risk?’, ‘do we leave it here or must we clean it up?’ or ‘are these low levels still a danger?’ Depending on who you talk to, the answers are quite different. In my job, I try to help answer these questions.

I am unfortunately fortunate; I’ve been to and worked at a vast number of radiation cleanup sites across the United States, and I’ve participated in so many emergency response exercises that I’ve lost count. I’ve also been up close and personal at the Chernobyl accident site in Ukraine several times, and I have seen the devastation of wide spread contamination in the environment and how that accident affected its citizens. I try to bring that experience back to EPA.

The Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT), of which I am a member, is one of many specialized technical teams in EPA. I’m often asked to provide help and advice on radiation issues in the field. That is, how to prevent, measure, clean up and protect people from needless radiation exposure. We train a lot, we maintain a good response capability, and we help where we can.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.