Earth Day 2011–Looking Back, Looking Forward

From the April 2011 issue of EPA NRMRL News, received via e-mail.

The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. In the years since then, the United States and its frontline environmental agent–the Environmental Protection Agency–have come a very long way toward preserving our finite resources of clean air, water, and land. Earth Day 2011 provides a perspective on past EPA successes, especially the scientific accomplishments that laid the foundation for legislative action, and for the environmental tools and technologies in use today. But Earth Day also looks ahead to a new vision of sustainability.

Water Use and Reuse

More than a half-century of scientific research in drinking water chemistry resulted in the first U.S. legislation–the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974–that today ensures clean drinking water for communities and efficient controls on community waste water and storm runoff. Some results of the 1974 legislation and its amendments include:

  • Control of chemicals, bacteria, and viruses in drinking water
  • Identification of unwanted byproducts of chlorine disinfection
  • Development of risk standards for lead, copper, and arsenic in drinking water
  • Control of microbial contaminants in source waters
  • Control of municipal waste water for potential reuse
  • Controls on storm water runoff and combined sewer overflows

Clean Air

EPA research laid the foundation for Clean Air Act legislation in 1970 to protect against hazardous air pollutants, especially highway traffic emissions and power plant emissions. Some clean air research accomplishments include:

  • Control of sulfur and nitrogen oxides from coal-fired plants
  • Control of radon infiltration into buildings
  • Identification of indoor air pollutants from household products
  • Development of safe replacements for high-risk CFCs in refrigerators
  • Identification of hazardous coatings, cleaning solvents, and adhesives
  • Control of mercury from power plants and municipal waste burning

Land and Groundwater Protection

Land remediation and groundwater pollution research has resulted in innovative technologies in soil and sediment remediation and redevelopment. Some of them are:

  • Identification of nonaqueous-phase liquids (denser-than-water hazardous solvents) and their removal from groundwater
  • Permeable reactive barriers (subsurface treatment walls) to remediate groundwater pollutants
  • Site-specific technical support for Superfund cleanups
  • Groundwater protection from concentrated animal facility operations
  • Watershed management
  • In situ bioremediation (use of bacteria or plants) for restoring contaminated ground water
  • Reuse of processed wastewater residuals for land and forest reclamation
  • Planning models for municipal restoration of abandoned industrial properties

Research for the Sustainable Future

EPA scientific and engineering research programs have been intensely involved in the problems of restoration and reclamation. Many research efforts continue on this path. But the EPA mandate of protection also involves the growing scientific understanding of the future–the sustainability–of American environmental resources. Many EPA researchers whose work follows this new path are expanding the traditional laboratory setting to add increasing contact with stakeholders in the interaction that sustainable decision making demands. EPA life-cycle analysts, for example, collaborate with business and manufacturing stakeholders in assessing the long-term impacts of products and processes on the environment. This cradle-to-grave assessment requires both data-based modeling and stakeholder contact to be implemented successfully in a real-world economy.

The EPA PLACES program works with a living community to make decisions about community development, land use planning, and property management, among other things, in a long-term, monitored sustainability planning model.

Another notable research model is EPA’s Shepherd Creek Pilot Project, which is using economic incentives to involve property owners in improved storm water management practices in a community with large volumes of storm water runoff.

These research programs reflect EPA’s new concepts of stewardship and sustainability that seek a balance of economic growth and environmental responsibility, public and private. They also reflect the expanded vision of Earth Day celebrations since 1970.

Media Contact: Steve Doub, 513-569-7503

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