The Green Agency Goes on Red Alert

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not just about protecting spotted owls and other threatened animals and plants. Like the rest of the federal agencies carrying on in our post 9/11 world, EPA is increasingly focusing on homeland security. Specifically, EPA is concentrating on the security of the nation's drinking water systems and the safety of the public in buildings and other structures.

In order to further its goals related to homeland security, in November 2004 EPA set up its National Homeland Security Research Center. The center has three divisions: water infrastructure protection, decontamination and consequence management, and threat and consequence assessment. The Water Infrastructure Protection Division is primarily focused on the security of the water supply, treatment, and distribution infrastructures within the United States. The division oversees research aimed at preventing deliberate contamination of the water supply, detecting and characterizing contaminants, and responding to and cleaning up contamination.

Addressing different concerns, the Decontamination and Consequence Management Division concentrates on research related to the diction of contamination in buildings as well as its cleanup and disposal. The division oversees research related to the development of rapid detection technologies and protective filters, methods to protect emergency responders, and information to guide cleanups. Additionally, the division is evaluating research related to the dispersal of contaminants in indoor environments, the interaction of decontaminants with materials used in buildings, and disposal methods.

Finally, the Threat and Consequence Assessment Division oversees research related to effectively instructing and guiding emergency responders and the public following a terrorist attack or other incident. The division is developing risk estimate methodologies, information systems and tools, and means to communicate risks to potential targets of incidents.

All together, the National Homeland Security Research Center is currently working on more than 170 projects. According to Obe Vincent, a research supervisor at the security center, the center has already developed a protocol to analyze "unknowns" specific to drinking water systems, a compendium of current microbiological risk assessment methods that could support the assessment of risks posed by a biological incident, and a document describing standardized analytical methods that laboratories could use when analyzing contaminant and other samples from homeland security incidents. Other projects include strategies that could be used for the short term to ensure communities had drinking water in the event of a homeland security incident and methods to collect, transport and safely dispose of wastes from chemical and biological attacks.

In addition to working on its own specific projects, EPA will combine forces with 28 other federal agencies, state and local governments and the private sector in unifying emergency response activities under the National Response Plan. According to the plan, its development was guided by 42 federal regulations and statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, as well as 15 executive orders and 13 presidential directives. Under the plan, EPA will provide response assistance for national emergencies involving the releases of hazardous materials, including chemical, biological, and radiological substances. Additionally, the agency will participate with other federal, state, and local agencies in emergency planning exercises that will use the framework provided by the plan. 

As part of its role related to homeland security, in the fall of 2004 EPA initiated the Homeland Security Technology and Testing & Evaluation Program. The purpose of the TTEP program is to conduct third party performance evaluations of commercially available homeland security technologies, incorporating stakeholder guidance and a high degree of quality assurance oversight. The technologies to be tested under TTEP fall in two broad categories: water security and building protection. The water security technologies include detection devices and treatment methods for contamination in drinking water systems, wastewater treatment methods, and also possibly software for distribution system modeling and design. The building protection technologies include systems for indoor decontamination, detection and monitoring instruments to guide decontamination efforts, air cleaning and filtration devices, and possibly software for modeling air and contaminant movement in large buildings.

EPA's National Homeland Security Research Center has its work cut out for it. While the new center is focused on developing information and other tools to help reduce the threat of homeland security incidents, it also has to perform the tricky balancing act of making sure that potential terrorist don't get their hands on the information that would help them carry out terrorist attacks in the United States.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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