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EPA at 50: Celebrating A Rich History of State Partnership

Published August 18, 2020

On August 2, 2014, some half a million residents in and around Toledo, Ohio, were advised not to drink the water flowing into their homes. Lake Erie, the area’s drinking water source, was experiencing a harmful algal bloom and the local water utility had detected alarming levels of toxins.

Ohio state environmental officials immediately reached out to EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) for technical assistance.

They didn’t have to go far. 

Just a few hours to the south is a Cincinnati-based EPA laboratory known as a powerhouse in the water research arena for the development of innovative drinking water testing, monitoring, and treatment technologies. EPA scientists and engineers played a critical role in getting the water turned back on.   

“When we were faced with an emergency in Toledo, August 2014, due to cyanobacterial toxins detected in their treated drinking water, EPA ORD staff was a great partner and exceeded our expectations in understanding science and helping optimize treatment and restore safe drinking water to our residents,” noted Craig Butler at the time, who served as the Director of Ohio EPA’s at the time.

As the Agency highlights successes as part of its 50th Anniversary celebration, it’s fitting to note how our researchers work directly with the states to support emergency response and meet ongoing environmental and related public health challenges.

It is the state environmental agencies that work on the frontlines of environmental protection, so these partnerships play a critical role in EPA’s strategic research planning, ensuring the end results are timely, applicable, and impactful. 

That spirit of cooperation between EPA and state governments is not new. In fact, it was imbedded into the very founding of the Agency. “As no disjointed array of separate programs can, the EPA would be able—in concert with the States—to set and enforce standards for air and water quality and for individual pollutants,” noted President Richard Nixon in his article officially establishing the agency and spelling out its role as a federal entity (Article 3). He included cooperative research as a key support element for State and local pollution programs: “…to give it [the agency] the needed strength and potential for carrying out its mission.”

More recently, EPA’s Office of Research and Development has made working directly with the states an explicit part of its strategic research planning through a robust partnership with the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS, the national association of state environmental agency leaders) and its research arm, the Environmental Research Institute of the States (ERIS).

ECOS is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan association whose stated purpose is “to improve the capability of state environmental agencies and their leaders to protect and improve human health and the environment of the United States of America.” ERIS is a subsidiary of ECOS that focuses on educational and research issues.

Natural partners, ECOS and ORD work together to advance their shared missions of protecting human health and the environment. Communication is key. Regular meetings, workshops, and other forums facilitate the free flow of information between state, local and federal staff. ECOS members, often the first to be called when public health and environmental challenges emerge, provide a kind of early warning system to their EPA counter parts. In return, EPA can better support state needs, matching its scientific expertise and related resources to local conditions.

This symbiosis strengthens all participants, helping States advance public health while informing EPA’s strategic research planning to ensure it continues to deliver.  

For example, over the past several years, ERIS and EPA have strengthened the alignment of EPA research programs with state science priorities and needs through a series of meetings and surveys. In response, Agency researchers have embarked on research to directly address these priorities.

The ERIS survey results helped inform the development of ORD’s most recent Strategic Research Action Plans (2019-2022), which outline Agency’s research programs and technical support efforts. Agency research staff directly engaged their counterparts in the states to inform the strategic research planning behind the plans. Along with EPA program and regional offices, state members helped refine planned research and identify specific outputs and end products needed.

And the partnership did not stop there. Agency researchers will continue to engage with states to help them implement research findings and products, ensuring newly developed tools, models, data, and other resources have impact at the state and local levels.

So far, the collaborative research efforts have addressed a wide diversity of subject areas, including air and water pollution, chemicals, Superfund and contaminated site remediation, infrastructure, sustainability and resilience, and homeland security. Recent examples include:

  • the first watershed-wide mapping of levels of PFAS (long-chain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a contaminant of concern in drinking water;  
  • the capability to detect and estimate cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms (HABs) using satellite data records;
  • the use and application of new air pollution monitoring technologies to better protect public health;
  • the beneficial use of coal combustion residuals;
  • locating and replacing lead service lines to improve drinking water quality;
  • advancing community resiliency from floods and other extreme events;
  • cleaning up and remediation Superfund and other contaminated sites

The list above is just a short sample of the many success stories highlighting how EPA’s research has supported state needs. A more complete record can be found on EPA’s webpage devoted to research and partnership in support of the states: https://www.epa.gov/research-states.

Together, that record of achievement touches every state across the nation. It’s exactly the vision of collective strength that President Nixon called for fifty year ago when he established EPA. It also presents a blueprint for how partnership with the states will guide EPA into the future.