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RARE Partnerships: EPA Research Program Targets Local Science Needs

For 10 years, EPA’s Regional Applied Research Effort (RARE) program has brought science expertise to address high-priority regional science needs.

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Evaluating new methods to assess vapor intrusion. Tracking mercury in a riverine estuary near a Massachusetts Superfund site. Using infrared cameras to record hydrocarbon emissions during inspections at natural gas transport facilities. These are just a few examples of the innovative research partnerships organized in the past 10 years through EPA’s Regional Applied Research Effort (RARE) program.

RARE has funded more than 200 high-priority research projects, from the Florida Everglades (a study looking at daily deposition of mercury due to rainfall in the Everglades and southern Florida) to rural Alaska (determining the fate and effects of leachate contamination on Alaska tribal drinking water sources). Annually, a network of 20 regional scientists foster constant communication between EPA’s ten regional offices and the Agency’s Office of Research and Development (ORD).  RARE projects, identified by the regional scientists, answer key environmental questions that are important to communities and address regional and national research priorities.

“The goal of such partnerships is to bring together many different people, with a diversity of expertise, in ways that facilitate collaborative research for high-priority science needs,” says Fred Hauchman, Ph.D., Director of EPA’s Office of Science Policy. Hauchman’s office runs RARE and a number of other research partnership programs

“The program provides opportunities for ORD scientists to apply their expertise to regional issues,” explains Maggie LaVay, who as the Regional Science Program Coordinator helps lead the program. “It’s a great way to leverage resources, expertise, and facilities,” she emphasizes.  

A prime example of how RARE efforts can translate into actions at the local level is a collaborative research project at the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. The refuge is located just 25 miles downstream from the Nyanza Chemical Waste Dump, an EPA Superfund site. Scientists from EPA’s New England Office (Region 1) worked with ORD partners to study how mercury contamination accumulates as it moves up an aquatic food chain, from vegetation and simple producers such as algae to plant eaters and finally, to predators. The study provided key data used for the development of improved cleanup standards for Nyanza, as well as next steps for reducing mercury contamination in the wildlife refuge and nearby communities.

“We need the insight and collective strengths of state, local government, and community partners to assure that our research is meaningful for them so that they can take scientifically sound protective actions,” says Nigel Fields, former EPA Regional Science Program Chief.

In addition to support for targeted research for high-priority local challenges, the RARE program provides EPA headquarter scientists with valuable insight into the ongoing science needs across the nation. Dr. Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, the interim National Program Director of EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources Research (SSWR) Program, points out that about 46 proposed or current RARE projects are directly relevant to the SSWR research program. “The interaction with RARE can go both ways, where we can take a national issue and apply it at a local level, or pilot something at a local level and then scale it up to a national level,” she explains.

Tim Watkins, Deputy Director of EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy (ACE) Research Program, also described ongoing RARE projects that support EPA’s development of oil and gas refinery emissions standards. Two of these projects in EPA’s Region 6 Office (South Central U.S.) demonstrate the reliability of using infrared cameras for “seeing” leaking hydrocarbon emissions from natural gas facility equipment. Invisible to the human eye, identifying and stopping such leaks is important for protecting local air quality and a money saver for natural gas operators. After findings were reported from these projects, EPA modified regulations to allow the use of these cameras during natural gas transport facility inspections. “Our goal is to be able to find situations where the RARE program activity produces a product, like the infrared cameras, that not only benefits a particular Region, but also contributes to an innovation in promoting cleaner, healthier air with broad applicability and impact,” says Watkins.

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