What do dental schools, rain gardens, and office parks have in common? They were all part of the discussion at a December, 2006 workshop exploring and sharing "lessons learned" from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Collaborative Science and Technology Network for Sustainability (CNS).
CNS is a novel research program established in 2004 by EPA's National Center for Environmental Research (NCER) to support collaborative efforts that explore and apply innovative approaches to environmental protection. Collectively, these efforts center on the concept of sustainability, developing and applying forward-looking behavior and decision-making models that combine social and economic factors with broad-based considerations of potential future environmental impacts.
"To achieve sustainability, we realized we needed to support new ways of planning and making decisions, to bring different communities and their perspectives- citizens groups, engineers, economists, local government officials, and scientists from multiple disciplines-together to think about the future and bridge the gap between science and action," explains Diana Bauer, NCER's Assistant Center Director for Sustainability.
Taking this approach, Bauer and her colleagues established the CNS grant program. The first round of awards, totaling $3.1 million, went to 12 unique projects around the country (out of 130 proposals). These research teams have been investigating ways to incorporate sustainability plans and decisions in ecosystem management, industrial materials flow, and communities and the built environment (houses, buildings, roads, and alike).
Fitting CNS' multi-disciplinary philosophy perfectly, the New York Academy of Sciences is conducting the Harbor Project, a comprehensive survey to understand and prevent contamination in the New York/New Jersey Harbor. The project is guided by the Harbor Consortium, a diverse group of more than 30 members representing community organizations, civic and environmental groups, labor, industry, small business associations, academia, and regulatory and government agencies (including EPA).
One of the Harbor Project's first areas of concern was the flow of the toxic heavy metal mercury into the harbor. By combining toxicology, biochemistry, and industrial ecology studies, the consortium identified waste from hospitals, laboratories, and dental facilities as major sources of the harbor's mercury.
"A more conventional analysis of the situation might have stopped there," says Bauer. "But because they want to actually address key problems, the Academy held workshops with leaders in the dental health field, and worked with dental schools to establish better practices for handling mercury waste and keeping it from reaching the harbor." The Academy is now working with labs and hospitals to help them do the same, as well as addressing sources of other contaminants such as cadmium, dioxin, and PCBs.
Another CNS grantee, the City of Portland, Oregon, is engaging hydrologists, municipal planners, and economists to explore using a credit trading system to encourage property owners to install rain gardens and other small scale, performance-based systems to lesson the load on the city's sewer and storm drain systems.
Such a credit trading system has real potential for enormous benefits. Portland hopes to provide a model for storm water management and pollution control for cities and expanding urban areas across the country, saving billions of dollars in sewer infrastructure upgrades while greatly reducing the flow of pollution from these areas in the form of tainted storm water runoff.
Other CNS projects currently underway include:
- Turning a California office park into a model "transit village" to reduce driving, provide alternative transportation, and reclaim space used now as parking lots for critically needed housing
- A focus on regional land use decisions and ecosystem impacts in the Cuyahoga River Valley of Ohio
- The development of a model for recycling urban water in metropolitan Chicago
- The evaluation of best stormwater management practices in rapidly-expanding Montgomery County, Maryland
- The development of an effective, easy-to-use computer program to support sustainability decisions in materials use and profitability in the Northeast
- Improving a model to identify where reductions in heat pollution in rivers could provide large benefits in the Pacific Northwest
- The development of a decision support system to integrate scientific models of ecological flow needs, water demand management, and water supply planning in the Northeast
- A measurement of the impact of urban growth projects on the quality and availability of land, ecosystems, and water on the island of Puerto Rico
With these important projects well under way, EPA is preparing to announce the next round of grantees in early 2007. This round of funding will support work from the 141 proposals submitted in the two overall focus areas of: (1) communities and the built environment, and (2) industrial ecology and organizational behavior.
"We knew about the great work being done across different disciplines. Our goal is to enable this work to transform the very nature of environmental protection" says Bauer.