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EPA Microbiologists Provide Environmental Technology Guidance to Former Soviet Weapons Scientists

Since 2001, EPA scientists have been working through the BioChem Redirect Program to help former Soviet weapons scientists in Kazakhstan pursue more peaceful ends.

EPA and Soviet Scientists

In a modern day version of turning weapons into plowshares, a number of scientists from the EPA have teamed up with the Department of State’s Nonproliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Expertise Program (NWMDE) (formerly the Biochem Redirect Program) to help scientists from the former Soviet Union make the transition from weapons scientists to environmental researchers.

The main goal of the NWDME Program is to retrain former biological and chemical weapons scientists so they can put their considerable training and knowledge to use toward environmental research projects. Since 2001, EPA microbiologists Richard Devereux and colleague Wendy Davis-Hoover have joined forces with the program that aims to help scientists from the former Soviet Union make a successful transition from developing weapons to more peaceful pursuits.

“When the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. decided it was in their best interests to keep those scientists employed. The Department of State allocated funds as appropriated by Congress to redirect scientists into peaceful areas,” Devereux emphasized. Funds were distributed to partner federal agencies through the Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. The program first began in 2000, proposals were reviewed in 2001, and research began in 2003. NWDME programs are still being conducted in Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

In their current project, the EPA scientists and their Kazakhstan colleagues headed by Dr. Svetlana Abdrashitova are investigating two microbiological treatments—one aerobic and one anaerobic—to mitigate mercury contamination in ground water in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan. To optimize their success rate, Devereux focused on anaerobic organisms, while Davis-Hoover handled aerobic. This project was chosen because it was ripe for helping the scientists develop more marketable technologies, and dovetailed perfectly with existing expertise of EPA scientists eager to share their experiences.

Davis-Hoover was originally attracted to the project due to her previous work on lead-sequestering bacteria. “Mercury contamination is never just a local problem; it’s always an international problem,” stated Davis-Hoover. The mercury-contaminated water flows through rivers to other countries, making it a well-suited beneficial opportunity for their environmental research as well as other countries’. Since there was widespread industrial mercury contamination, the Kazakhstan microbiologists proposed mitigation based on in situ bioremediation technologies.

Devereux recently recalled the work the research team has conducted over the years; “We started by isolating soil microbes that we thought might be of use from each site, cultured them in the lab, and finally characterized how well each candidate could handle mercury,” he clarified. Between 20 and 30 different cultures were screened and the best suited ones were used in the study. Last summer, treatment wells were installed and the organisms were introduced. The scientists in Kazakhstan are working to overcome some technical difficulties with the aerobic treatment wells and preliminary results indicating removal of mercury with the anaerobic treatment wells are encouraging. Site monitoring to assess the efficacy and long term stability of the treatments still continues today.

Devereux and Davis-Hoover have been making regular trips to Pavlodar to join their counterparts in the field since 2001, most recently in August of 2010. “Each visit helps us establish how far along the scientists are progressing,” explained Devereux. He advised that the scientists could send reports and data for the EPA to review, but it is always better to physically see how they were doing. “I enjoyed getting to sit down and talk with the scientists, review procedures, and look at the laboratories, facilities, and field sites,” he mentioned, “it helps establish a more personal connection with the scientists.”

During one of the first visits, Davis-Hoover noticed, “We were seeing things you would have seen in the United States’ laboratories over 50 years ago. Now they have more new equipment and have really improved capabilities in environmental science.” Additionally, the researchers visited the Almaty Institute of Microbiology and Virology and the Almaty Institute of Power Engineering and Telecommunications, the home of much of the analytical work for the project. 

Overall, the NWDME Program hopes to establish environmental science in these particular countries, keep former weapons scientists employed, and help improve the environmental conditions of the host country at the same time. Devereux hopes that this specific project in Pavlodar will discover viable approaches to mitigating mercury at the site and others as well.

Largely, the project has been successful, mostly benefiting the Kazakhstan scientists. For the 10 years they have been going there, both Devereux and Davis-Hoover could clearly see that Almaty and Pavlodar have become more developed, attracting a large influx of capital in the area. “When we first started visiting, the infrastructure was crumbling apart. Now they have really built it up, making the cities more vibrant,” recalled Davis-Hoover.

Their experience working with science in a foreign country has proved that it is very similar to that of the United States. “Just like us, they are very interested and dedicated to helping better their country’s environment,” claimed Devereux. Friendly and warm, one of the scientists even had them over for dinner once.  “They are very smart, well trained, technical people. Russia has some of best microbiologists in the world even if their labs weren’t as well equipped. It is amazing how similar our lives are in most ways,” reflected Davis-Hoover.

Although their laboratories were not at the same standard, Devereux observed that they make do with what they have and are “very resourceful.” Using funds made available from the Department of State grant, EPA was able to donate new equipment instruments to support the research. Many of the  younger scientists involved in the project have even expressed interest in gaining experience in laboratories in the United States, another testament to the scientific—and diplomatic—success of the program.

Not only have the lives of former weapons scientists improved, but their capabilities in environmental science have seen significant improvements as well.

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