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Rhode Island Residents Receive Prestigious Regional EPA Environmental Award in Ceremony Recognizing 40th Anniversary of Earth Day

Release Date: 04/22/2010
Contact Information: EPA Office of Public Affairs, (617) 918-1010

(Boston, Mass. – April 22, 2010) – Four individuals and one organization from Rhode Island will be honored on Earth Day in Boston’s Faneuil Hall as EPA presents the 2010 Environmental Merit Awards. During a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the organization recognized significant contributions to environmental awareness and problem solving by 40 individuals and groups across New England.

The merit awards allow EPA to recognize individuals and groups whose work has protected or improved the region’s environment in distinct ways. Given out by EPA since 1970, the merit awards honor individuals and groups who have shown particular ingenuity and commitment in their efforts.

“Today, on this milestone anniversary of Earth Day, I’d like to acknowledge and honor people, communities and businesses that have made significant strides in protecting New England’s health,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA New England. Spalding noted, during ceremonies to honor the winners, that President Obama issued an Earth Day challenge to Americans to take action - in homes, in the community and in schools or businesses, to improve the environment.

Quoting Obama, he said, “It can be as simple as riding the bus or the subway to work, making your home more energy efficient, or organizing your neighbors to clean up a nearby park.”

The Environmental Merit Awards, which are given to people who have already taken action, are awarded in the categories of individual; business (including professional organizations); local, state or federal government; and environmental, community, academia or nonprofit organization. Also, each year EPA presents lifetime achievement awards for individuals. The Environmental Merit Award Winners from Rhode Island are:

Lifetime Achievement Merit Award:

Richard Grant

Richard Grant, president of the Narrow River Preservation Association, has made a huge impact on cleaning the Narrow River. With help from EPA and the town of Narragansett, he spearheaded the program that has completed three of the 11 proposed ‘state of the art’ detention pond systems at the river’s edge, replacing straight drainage piping of contaminated runoff that previously flowed unfiltered directly into the Narrow River. These new detention ponds provide natural settling and filtration for this runoff and have improved water quality significantly. Now in its 18th year, the Narrow River ‘River Watch’ program uses volunteers who, with help from the University of Rhode Island’s laboratories, regularly sample, analyze and evaluate changes in water quality in the river. The association’s graduate level education program teaches local science teachers about the river and its watershed, and then instructs them on how to convey this information to students. Thousands of local students have learned from this process. Grant has volunteered with the organization since it began more than 40 years ago. He has ensured that adequate support is available for its annual River Run Road race, the Mile Turnabout Swim, the annual Kayak Raffle, as well as each of the association’s programs and other outreach efforts.

John Leo

John Leo was working to get a master’s degree in marine studies when he was called to serve in the military, going to Vietnam, Europe and the US. While in Virginia, he was involved in firefighting and hazardous materials spill response. This work led to a job as a toxicologist in the RI Department of Health in 1973. There, he analyzed toxic substances and published several articles on drug extraction and toxic materials. In 1979 he moved to the RI Department of Environmental Management as a sanitary engineer, using his chemistry background to address chemical cleanups. He was charged with defining hazards, coming up with cleanup methods, creating work plans, instructing personnel and setting up safety procedures. In 1980, Leo realized DEM had a duty to first responders and he developed a program providing emergency services for hazardous material incidents. He bought protective equipment and reference guides, as a start. Thus began the DEM Emergency Responder – a 24-7 position. Since taking that position, Leo has given back hundreds of sick and vacation hours every year. In 1981 he started teaching hazardous material classes to first responders and he has conducted HazMat training within DEM, the state and neighboring states. He has trained fire and police departments, private industry, farm workers and others.

Individual Merit Award:

Steven Stycos


Steve Stycos of Cranston has helped protect the Pawtuxet River, has supported Rhode Island farmers or serves as president of the West Bay Land Trust. Stycos has worked for more than a decade to bring thousands of Rhode Islanders to the Pawtuxet River each year through canoe rides, as well as wildlife and firefly walks. He created and maintains a network of trails, removing invasive species and planting native trees in the watershed. Most of his work is through Friends of the Pawtuxet, a nonprofit he founded in 1982 and still leads. Stycos involves youth groups like Boy Scouts, Youth Build Providence and school groups, in his activities. He also supports local farmers, getting locally grown produce into schools. He helped launch and still coordinates the Pawtuxet Village Farmer’s Market, which draws hundreds of customers to 10 farm stands. He secured grants for berry box recycling, for a composting workshop and for fresh food cooking demonstrations. Stycos was directly responsible for the Cranston School Department being the first in the state to buy fresh fruit and vegetables from local farmers.

Karen Verrengia

Energy Manager for Cranston Public School District, Cranston, RI

Karen Verrengia has improved the energy efficiency of Cranston through her work with the Cranston school system, beginning in 2006. Right from the start, Verrengia‘s task was to improve the energy efficiency of the schools’ buildings and reduce the amount of energy the schools used. Her focus on achieving reductions centered on working with the people who make a school run: facilities’ employees and building occupants. Her focus was on changing behaviors. The schools have avoided total energy costs of $2 million since then. Verrengia credits technicians, custodial staff, faculty and students with taking energy efficiency seriously and helping the schools improve. Her focus on changing behavior helped the Cranston schools reduce energy use without equipment purchases or upgrades. This focus will be replicable, and particularly attractive to districts with tighter budgets. Thanks to Verrengia, four Cranston elementary schools in 2009 received Energy Star plaques for superior energy performance. They did this without benefit of major retrofits, a success story that can inspire other schools struggling with budget cuts and energy costs.

Governmental Merit Award:

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management

Great Outdoors Pursuit

The RI Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Parks and Recreation launched the RI Great Outdoors Pursuit to reconnect families with the outdoors, encourage more physical activity, build the next generation of environmental stewards and showcase state parks and forests. Over a 12-week period in 2009, teams were challenged to visit seven different state forests and parks, where they participated in outdoor adventures including hiking, biking, fishing, rock climbing, volleyball, kayaking, horseback riding, geo caching, tree identification, maple sugaring demonstrations and old-fashion lawn games. The events also featured naturalist programs and environmental and health educational exhibits. Last year, more than 1,600 people on 378 teams reunited with the great outdoors and became more active and fit. By re-engaging Rhode Islanders with the natural world of the state parks, DEM has seen a steady increase in the number of patrons visiting state park and recreation facilities.

More Information:
Environmental Merit Awards (

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