ERT and Homeland Security
Many think of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the Agency that sets standards for others to follow to help ensure a cleaner environment. The Superfund program, however, is one in which the agency is directly involved in addressing threats to the public from uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. Within the Superfund program there is another core function that calls for specialized expertise: response to emergency releases of hazardous substances, including those released through terrorist incidents. This article is about EPA's Environmental Response Team, who provide that expertise.
The elevation of the national threat level to "Orange" during the 2003-2004 holiday season was a pointed reminder of the increasingly complex threats faced by Americans both at home and abroad. Homeland security is a key part of the United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) mission to protect human health and the environment. In the event of a terrorist attack involving chemical, biological, or radiological weapons, EPA will be among the first federal responders called to the scene. The Agency's experienced, highly-trained professionals will use specialized equipment to detect, mitigate, and help recover from the disaster.
As part of its homeland security responsibilities, EPA serves as the lead federal agency charged with helping to protect the nation's water supply infrastructure from terrorist attacks. The Agency also is responsible for cleaning up contamination from biological or chemical attacks, reducing the vulnerability of the chemical industry and hazardous materials sector, and responding to certain types of radiological attacks, including the detonation of a radiological dispersion device, also known as a "dirty bomb". To meet these challenges, EPA has strengthened its ability to respond simultaneously to multiple incidents and is providing advanced training and state-of-the- art equipment to those who will respond to any chemical, biological, or radiological incidents. Most recently, EPA established the Homeland Security Research Center at its Cincinnati facility to coordinate research in areas such as building decontamination, rapid risk assessment, and drinking water protection. In the last few years, the Agency has awarded nearly $50 million in grants to the nation's largest drinking water facilities to assess their vulnerabilities and make security improvements.
EPA's Environmental Response Team (ERT) is a key resource in meeting the Agency's homeland security challenges. The ERT is a group of skilled experts who are specially trained to respond to environmental emergencies and, more specifically, to provide on-scene assistance to deal with the human health and environmental impacts of terrorist attacks. Their ability to respond quickly to emergencies has already placed ERT at the scene of major terrorist crises. They monitored air quality at the World Trade Center site with mobile gas analyzers, and set up human health risk procedures for the responders. For the anthrax cleanups in Washington, DC, Florida, and six other states, the ERT provided technical assistance, helped develop analytical strategies, and analyzed the air outside of the buildings into which chlorine dioxide was pumped to kill anthrax spores.
EPA expanded the ERT's capacity to respond to terrorist incidents and other environmental emergencies by establishing ERT West. The new facility in Las Vegas, Nevada, joins those based in Edison, NJ, and Cincinnati, OH. The Las Vegas facility houses a team of 15 emergency responders who provide 24-hour technical and scientific expertise in air, soil, and water monitoring and sampling. The team also has experts in assessing and responding to chemical, biological, and radiological threats; identifying and analyzing contaminated materials; conducting environmental risk assessments, oil spill cleanups, and bioremediation; establishing human health and ecological risk protocols; and cleaning up hazardous wastes at extremely complex and sensitive sites.
30 Years of ERT
Round-the-clock, hit-the-ground-running response is nothing new for the ERT. The team has been the vanguard of EPA's response to environmental disasters here and abroad for many years. In fact, the ERT celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2008. The ERT was created in 1978 under the Clean Water Act to provide on- site national expert assistance in addressing oil and hazardous substance releases, as required by the National Contingency Plan (NCP). EPA tasked the original team of seven scientists with advising on-scene coordinators (OSCs). In December 1980, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), mandating EPA to take immediate action in the event of any chemical release that poses an imminent threat to public health and safety. In conjunction with the passage of this Act, Congress broadened and strengthened the emergency response capabilities of the NCP. Today, the ERT addresses a host of scenarios including those involving industrial chemicals, thermal treatments, geophysics, analytical method development for biological and chemical agents, drum sites, and fires of all types. Since its inception, the ERT has been active in all 50 states, all U.S. territories and Commonwealths, and 28 foreign countries. The team has responded to more than 6,000 hazardous materials releases, oil spills, terrorist incidents, and other emergencies since 1980, including debris recovery from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
Mandated as one of the Special Forces under the National Contingency Plan (NCP), the ERT functions in an advisory capacity to EPA OSCs, Remedial Project Managers (RPMs), Site Assessment Managers (SAMs), U.S. Coast Guard OSCs, other federal, state, and local officials, and foreign governments concerned with hazardous waste sites, spills, and other environmental threats. The staff also serve as in-house consultants on innovative and emerging technologies and are recognized experts in several fields of science. There is even an ERT dive team that assesses underwater sources of contamination. In addition, the ERT provides training to first responders, such as local fire fighters and other emergency personnel, on all aspects of emergency response and readiness.